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    Elephant in the Courtroom: In Yunnan, a Landmark Lawsuit Begins

    In a legal first, a nonprofit is suing a popular tourism company in southwest China for using elephants in public performances, arguing that its training methods amount to animal abuse.

    In a groundbreaking first in China, a nonprofit organization has brought a public interest lawsuit against a company operating elephant shows in the southwestern Yunnan province.

    Earlier this month, the Beijing Changping District Diverse Intelligence Environment Research Institute claimed that the methods employed by the Wild Elephant Valley Scenic Area Company in the training of elephants amounted to animal abuse. 

    In their lawsuit, filed at the Kunming Railway Transportation Intermediate Court, the nonprofit demanded that such shows be stopped and an apology issued in the media. It also asked the court to make the company provide the captive elephants treatment “for long-term psychological and physical injuries,” and ensure their release back into the wild.

    Reports on the lawsuit evoked an immediate outcry on social media as netizens extended overwhelming support, showing that public opinion in China is turning against the use of wild animals in shows.

    South Yunnan is the only region in China where wild elephants are found, and tourists from across the country flock to the Wild Elephant Valley Scenic Area in Xishuangbanna Prefecture to observe them in the wild.

    The scenic area also offers activities such as elephant rides, feeding elephants, and even a circus-style performance called Elephant School.

    Wild Elephant Valley Scenic Area Company Ltd, the firm that manages the scenic area, is responsible for the training and breeding of the elephants and the shows, according to their company profile.

    In an interview with Chengdu-based news outlet Hong Xing Media, the company claimed that the lawsuit’s claims of elephant abuse did not “correspond to reality,” adding that the scenic area, including the elephant show, was operating normally.

    But such use of elephants directly contravenes the “Recommendations for Further Strengthening of Zoo Management,” a policy document issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Department in 2010, which ordered that wild animal performances be stopped.

    In 2013, the same ministry followed up with the “National Zoo Development Outline,” which ordered “the elimination of all kinds of wild animal performances.”

    Yet performances at the Wild Elephant Valley have continued since the 1990s. The audience favourite is an act called Elephants Choose a Concubine. In it, elephants, wearing giant glasses and sitting on stools, select the most beautiful girl in the audience, and get to “kiss” the winner.

    When Sixth Tone contacted the Wild Elephant Valley by telephone, the person who answered the call claimed they were not aware of the lawsuit and declined a request to speak with the management.

    In their lawsuit, the nonprofit cited as evidence of elephant abuse a manual titled “Method of Training and Domestication of Elephants” that Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant Valley Scenic Area Company applied to register as intellectual property in 2018. The manual mentions the use of metal hooks, spears, and spikes.

    Beijing Changping District Diverse Intelligence Environment Research Institute was founded in 2015 and has since filed almost 50 civil public interest lawsuits against mining, sanitation, and hydropower companies over a range of environmental issues such as atmospheric and soil pollution.

    Sixth Tone could not reach Beijing Changping District Diverse Intelligence Environment Research Institute for comment. 

    Outcry online

    After the Chengdu–based Hong Xing News reported the lawsuit, commenters on Hong Xing’s page on the microblogging platform Weibo were united in their support. Many wrote similar posts that read: “Reject animal performances, support the public interest lawsuit!” One comment said: “Animal performances are, in their essence, animal abuse.”

    One Weibo user asked: “In 2010, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Department issued a notice banning all animal performances, so why do zoos and ocean parks all have them?”

    The response to the lawsuit by Wild Elephant Valley denying animal abuse only irked netizens further.

    “Are hooks in your hands not animal abuse? Do elephants just naturally love performing? If you don’t abuse them, will the elephants obey? Will you get through to them with logic? ” said one comment.

    A tourist guide in Xishuangbanna Prefecture told Sixth Tone on the condition of anonymity that he “hated” the elephant performance and did not include it in his own tours.

    Currently, China has no laws against animal cruelty. The official view is that sufficient protection for animals is provided by the 1998 Wild Animal Protection Law and the 2005 Livestock Law.

    However, a 2020 poll by China Central Television (CCTV) found that the Chinese public were overwhelmingly in favor of an animal cruelty law.

    For such a law to be passed, it has to be proposed to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) — China’s legislature — by a delegate.

    NPC delegate Zhu Lieyu, a lawyer who enjoys a considerable public profile, has already made four such proposals for animal protection laws, the latest in 2022, but none have made any headway.

    But Zhu Lieyu is somewhat of a controversial figure. One of his other proposals in 2022 was to decriminalize drink driving.

    Existing framework

    As a Grade 1 nationally protected species, elephants are afforded the highest level of protection in China. Capturing, transporting, selling, and keeping such animals without permits is punished by lengthy jail sentences.

    However, the commercial use of protected wild animals for profit under the guise of conservation, which provides the necessary permits, is common.

    Take, for example, the capture in 2021 of the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoises, a species of river dolphin, for two ocean parks: Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai and Haichang Ocean Park in Shanghai. The purpose was ostensibly to save the species by building up captive populations, a claim questioned by environmentalists and scientists.

    The general public has also been able to see through thinly veiled pretexts of conservation.

    Last year, instead of being released into the wild as promised, a rescued wild snow leopard in Inner Mongolia was put on display at the zoo in the city of Ordos. The gaudily decorated cage, the zoo claimed, “mimicked snow leopards’ natural habitat.”

    After a public outcry and derision, authorities swiftly intervened and the snow leopard was duly released back into the wild.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Elephants being used in a show at Wild Elephant Valley, a nature reserve for wild elephants that also features elephant-themed shows for tourists, in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, July 21, 2021. Hector Retamal/AFP via VCG)