Belgium steps in for elephants

Chris Simoens
04 October 2019
In many places in Africa and Asia, elephants are seriously threatened. Get to know the campaigns by Antwerp ZOO, ZOO Planckendael, Pairi Daiza and the federal government to protect the elephants.

Elephants are quite popular in a zoo - impressive in stature, yet mild in their behaviour. They also have a considerable economic, ecological and cultural importance. Moreover, elephants possess remarkable intelligence and they live in complex social structures.

Nonetheless, these charismatic mega-plant eaters are threatened in many places in Asia and Africa. Owing to the loss of forests and savannahs, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to find a suitable natural environment in which to live. Furthermore, living together with humans can often be problematic. It could be compared to the return of the wolf for us - very nice, but farmers are often not too enthusiastic about it. Elephants are not always the most welcome guests either - after all, they can churn up a farmer's fields. Humans are regularly crushed to death by a visiting colossus, and if your village lies on the elephants' annual migration route, you could be in for a world of pain. 

This is why Antwerp ZOO, ZOO Planckendael and Pairi Daiza are dedicating themselves to helping elephants live alongside humans in greater harmony. They are also raising particular awareness among the very young about the conservation of elephants.

Kai Muk (left) and Tun Kai in ZOO Planckendael
© Jonas Verhelst

Antwerp ZOO and ZOO Planckendael

Since the birth of the popular young elephant Kai-Mook in 2009, Antwerp ZOO has wanted to protect elephants. This was when the ZOO opened a donation account to help Kai-Mook's fellow elephants in India, more specifically via the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF).

There are around 6,000 elephants competing with humans in southern India. Among other things, the ANCF has constructed corridors to link various elephant habitats with one another. It takes action against poachers and tries to keep the elephants away from the villages. With financing from ZOO Planckendael, it was even able to move a village that lay on a migration route. This was done in close consultation with the village inhabitants at all times, who were the people asking for a solution. Scientists from Antwerp ZOO and ZOO Planckendael visited this area as recently as early 2019. You can find out more about the project here.

Antwerp ZOO and ZOO Planckendael are also working actively on the international breeding programme for the threatened Asian elephant. ZOO Planckendael, for example, provided sufficient space to grow a herd of up to 12 animals. The elephants are able to exhibit their maximum natural behaviour here. This was a success, as demonstrated by the numerous births of baby elephants. Also Kai-Mook is feeling great there.

Two elephants in a pond in Pairi Daiza
© Pairi Daiza

Pairi Daiza

Pairi Daiza is equally well-disposed towards elephants; no less than 22 of them are dwelling in the park: 2 African and 20 Asian elephants. That makes it the largest elephant herd in Europe. A genuine reserve of eight hectares has been set up, where Pairi Daiza is breeding the threatened Asian elephants with the aim of one day releasing them back into their natural habitat. This resulted in two births in 2019: two females (Malee and Luna) came into the world at the elephant preserve.

As part of the fight against the elephant herpes virus, Pairi Daiza is regularly contacted by colleagues from other Parks or Zoos to send, as a matter of urgency, blood bags collected from their animals. Research has shown that a plasma transfusion, in certain specific cases, can be effective in saving a baby elephant from the virus. If other zoos rely upon Pairi Daiza, it is because with no less than 20 Asian elephants, the Garden of the Worlds has a very large de facto "blood (and therefore plasma) bank" that can be very quickly used when an elephant is in danger in another park. Since in Pairi Daiza, elephants and healers live in direct and continuous contact, these close relationships greatly facilitate blood tests, especially when they must be carried out in an emergency.

The Pairi Daiza Foundation also funds research on the pathogenesis of elephant herpes and is working to set up a diagnostic laboratory in Belgium. Multiple researches and works, therefore, which will benefit everyone... and elephants in the first place!

The ZOO is also helping to work on a solution to the herpes virus, in particular via the Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC), the scientific research centre for Antwerp ZOO and ZOO Planckendael. The CRC has since acquired lab equipment (qPCR) to detect elephant herpes in blood, including for Pairi Daiza's calves.

Both ZOOs are also helping to look for a vaccine that could prevent an outbreak. Since the death of the elephant Qiyo in the summer of 2018, who was nearly three years old, ZOO Planckendael has not sat idle on that score. A fund-raising campaign with the visitors and sympathisers of ZOO Planckendael brought in 75,000 euros, which is being invested in scientific research and the quest for a vaccine.



A further major threat to elephants is the hunt, seeking the ivory from their tusks or for the meat or skin. Ivory poses a particularly large problem. This was why the international community decided in the CITES treaty of 1984 that the ivory trade would now only be permitted in exceptional circumstances (CITES = Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). In summary, the ivory trade was totally forbidden after 1984. Worked ivory from prior to 1984 may only be traded if accompanied by a CITES certificate. All the details can be found on the FPS Public Health website.

In 2018, the FPS Public Health organised a campaign on ivory. Citizens were given the opportunity to dispose of any ivory objects they owned that were manufactured recently. The FPS collected 270kg of ivory at this time, which was later destroyed. It is still possible to hand in your ivory - there is a special container in the FPS' entrance hall for this purpose. 

It is still possible to hand in your ivory - there is a special container in the FPS' entrance hall for this purpose. 

Two women are standing in front of a collection container with an elephant's large tusk.
© FOD Volksgezondheid

Ivory is clearly not a holiday souvenir; any recent ivory is illegal, despite still being offered for sale. Nevertheless, despite the ban, many ivory objects continue to be confiscated from people entering Belgian territory.

FPS Public Health inspectors regularly audit antique dealers and auctioneers to check whether any ivory on offer is in fact legal - and this is necessary. After all, illegal ivory is one of the most common infringements.

FPS Public Health inspectors regularly audit antique dealers and auctioneers to check whether any ivory on offer is in fact legal - and this is necessary. After all, illegal ivory is one of the most common infringements.

An inspector is investigating two ivory figurines.
© FOD Volksgezondheid

African Elephant Fund

The federal government supports the African Elephant Fund. 170,000 euros have been donated to date, with another 50,000 euros coming in this year. The fund is developing national protection plans in Africa. Belgium has been part of the management committee since 2014, so it can be present for the evaluation and approval of the projects.

This country is also subsidising the Virunga National Park, which is being led by a Belgian: Emmanuel de Merode. The subsidies help the local population to find alternative sources of income to replace poaching. The contribution amounted to 100,000 euros this year. Antwerp ZOO's conference centre, the Flanders Meeting and Convention Center Antwerp, known internationally as ‘a Room with a ZOO’, also financed de Merode's work at the Virunga National Park in 2018 with a contribution of 25,000 euros.

Finally, the FPS Public Health is providing the following support:

  • An annual contribution of 15,000 euros to the NGO Traffic to support EU-TWIX, an effective tool for exchanging information between supervising authorities. It also contains a database in which the details of confiscations can be kept up to date and analysed;
  • A subsidy of 25,000 euros in 2017 for Traffic for the development of AFRICA-TWIX, the African branch of EU-TWIX;
  • A subsidy of 45,000 euros for ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System), an extensive information system for tracking down illegal trade in ivory and other products from elephants. The aim of this is to establish and analyse trends in illegal trade.


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