Until last month, the 30 young elephants roamed free along the Limpopo River in neighboring Botswana.
Since then, they've been chained up at a wildlife export farm near Pretoria being tamed so they can be sold to zoos and safari parks and for menial labor.Chains bite into their legs, causing the animals to trumpet in distress, said Rick Allan, an investigator who saw them last month at the African Game Services farm.
Allan, of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he would file animal cruelty charges next week.
The tale of the 30 elephants has divided animal lovers and highlights Africa's quandary about a species still listed as endangered yet growing by 7 percent a year and destroying the crops sustaining humans.
African Game Services bought the 30 elephants for $2,000 each from Botswana's Northern Tuli Game Reserve, a private organization of 19 landowners and tourist lodges. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks approved the sale.
After investing millions of dollars to reclaim former cattle ranches for a private wildlife reserve, investors learned through an aerial game survey that there were seven times more elephants than the land could support.
The animals had decimated some tree species, said Ted Steyn, chairman of the landowners' group. They would wander across the Limpopo into South Africa, where hunting permits were issued to limit crop damage.
Efforts to find new destinations for elephant families have failed, Steyn said.
So, in a three-day roundup in early August, African Game Services used helicopters to separate out 5- to 10-year-old elephants.
Riccardo Ghiazza, who owns the export business, insists he saved the elephants from being killed.
Elephant behavioral experts Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole in Kenya were among those internationally to condemn the handling of the problem. After pictures of the chained elephants appeared in the local press, South African animal experts got worried, too.
They, however, decided to help African Game Services negotiate the controversy and, through a new committee, develop standards for elephant training as an alternative to dealing with the bursting population.
Panel members include the Rhino and Elephant Foundation, the local U.N. Convention on Trade in Endangered Species and the Department of Agriculture.
Marion Garais, chairwoman of the Elephant Management and Owners' Association and a committee member, said she found the animal exporter had no alternative to chaining.
"Cruelty is subjective," she said. "It's not nice to chain an elephant, but zoos and circuses chain them, too."
Baby elephants who are nursing are not taken from their mothers, Ghiazza said. And, he added, Indonesian tamers already have succeeded with one group and removed the chains.