Interview:Free Bunka with Mark Stratton

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Free Bunka with Mark Stratton

Nikita Dhawan speaks with Mark Stratton about the campaign to free Bunka

April 19, 2023.

Bunka the elephant at the Yerevan Zoo, Armenia
Bunka the elephant at the Yerevan Zoo, Armenia

Nikita: Hi Mark, can you start by giving us some background information about the campaign and the conditions Bunka is living in?

Mark: Bunka is a 15-year-old male elephant who resides in Yerevan Zoo in Armenia, which is in the Caucasus region of Far Eastern Europe, bordering Asia. He has been living alone in the zoo since 2014 when he was taken from his mother, who is currently residing in Tbilisi Zoo. Bunka has been growing up on his own with no other elephants in the zoo, making his situation quite isolating.

I first came across Bunka while on a work assignment in Armenia, and I was struck by how depressed he looked. It was heartbreaking to see a tropical Asian elephant living in such freezing conditions. After witnessing his poor condition, my friend Tina and I launched Friends of Bunka last year to advocate for his release from the zoo, and we've been working towards that goal ever since.

Nikita: I've seen videos of his condition. I was surprised. It was completely barren. There was no vegetation.

A lot has happened in the last two years the campaign's been running and I think one of your most significant achievements was the independent scientific evaluation of Bunka's physical and psychological conditions in November. Did you find that the zoo was sympathetic to the cause? Or did you face some resistance regarding this report?

Mark: What we've done throughout Nikita is we've tried to maintain a dialogue with the zoo. So, by that way, we have been extremely polite. We've been very science based. We've been sending them material about how the impact captivity has on elephants psychologically and physically. Also, we've been suggesting alternatives and asking them to consider releasing Bunka. I mean, our objective is to get him to sanctuary. We have no other lower tier of objective. We approached the zoo, the person we've been in contact with, who we believe is the power broker behind the zoo.

Can I just say, since we started, well, since I first saw Bunka, we are now on to the fourth zoo director. It continually changes. The city hall owns Bunka's property. I mean, it's a terrible word, isn't it? Owning an elephant. But they own him, and the city mayor has just resigned. So, every time we try to put pressure on the administration, it changes. This is the nature of politics in Armenia.

But there is one constant figure behind the scenes who we believe holds the power behind the zoo and we've kept a friendly dialogue open with him. We approached him about the inspection. We're not entirely sure if he understood what an inspection meant. He perhaps thought it was just going to be a group of international experts coming over and having a look at Bunka and perhaps making some assessment about his physical conditions. Or maybe they believed that we would come over and find everything was fine. So, they agreed to that and obviously, that's a big step.

I know many other people like us who are campaigning to try to free elephants from zoos. Actually getting the zoo authority to agree to an inspection is difficult. But it was a good first step. We went over in late May last year. I travelled to give a hand to someone probably well known to many people in the elephant scene, Ingo Schmidinger, who was carrying out the physical assessment of Bunka. My role there was to take video to be used for the psychological assessment, which was done remotely by Dr. Marion Garai and Brett Mitchell. All three of these report writers were all members of PREN, the Professional Elephant Network. So, there was a fantastic team assembled when we went over there to look at him.

Nikita: I think it's great that you had some sort of stable source of support in the zoo. I do know that politics tend to get involved. For the Delhi Zoo, it's been difficult to get just an independent investigation. But I think the report itself, I was just surprised. It was just so detailed and objective. You talked about the inspection itself. What was Bunka’s physical and mental condition?

Mark: Yes. When we were on the ground, I said I was purely there observing and shooting the video for the psychological inspection, which was done after we returned back to our respective countries. What I observed Ingo doing was examining the physical surroundings of Bunka, carrying out a physical inspection of Bunka himself. We were both surprised when we first saw Bunka. He's huge. He is a really big bull, but he's also very, very skinny and gaunt and that worried us from the start. Shall I tell you what we actually found, some of the broad outlines?

Nikita: Please do.

Mark: So we were certainly concerned and the report has found his body weight was insufficient. He was showing signs of malnutrition. His ribs were noticeable, his backbone was prominent, his head appeared too small to his body size. He had a very weak body posture, which was suggested in the report of an inferior muscular condition. His skin was very dry. Now, this is the second time I've been there and seen no water in his outdoor pool and there's very little scope for him to have dust baths, those normal elephant behaviours. There was no pile of sand outside.

There was what they call a boomer ball where you put fruit inside these giant balls and I actually observed him while I was filming outside. I observed him just toss it over the fence. So his behaviour didn't look good. We observed him outside in this very small enclosure, unstimulating small enclosure and he was listless and bored. I think psychologically, let me quote you. I've got it here. Here's an assessment because of the videos of how he looked when we actually had this report done by the report’s two scientists back in South Africa.

Bunka and his boomer ball.
Bunka and his boomer ball.

He spends most of his time waiting for the next food to be given or looking for something to do. And this is hour by hour, day by day, month by month, year by year. Given that for over 17 hours per day during winter, Bunka is locked up in a concrete room, and surprisingly has not become more aggressive or show more apparent behaviours. No amount of enrichment, even if there were any, can adequately provide the mental and physical stimulation of relief from suffering for Bunka. It's not good.

Nikita: I also read the key term, ‘vacuum behaviour’, this is where he's going through motions, but there's no achievable goal and that's because of that lack of enrichment. I'm guessing a lot of that is also due to the fact that he's just been alone for so long and solitary. It is typically believed that males don't require the company of other elephants, but the report refutes that and says that Bunka was also taken prematurely from his mother and that elephants need 10 to 12 years with their family.

So that lack of social environment is also affecting his behaviour.  I think the temperature difference was just very alarming to me because I saw that the average temperature in the winters is from -7 degrees, whereas he's used to a tropical condition with high 20 degrees. So I think that was just very alarming.

Mark: Very alarming, Nikita. And you know, the zoo maintains the services of a so-called elephant welfare expert. For us, he's a fraud. He posted something on YouTube recently showing enrichment for Bunka. He'd actually built a little snowman. You get the irony here, of an elephant being given a snowman with some fruit stuffed in it. That is enrichment? That is torture. I mean, it's just incredible. If this is an animal which requires a warm tropical environment being given the snowman and that's called enrichment. The scientists in the report talk about, he displays few other actions other than feeding, which is true.

We think he's relatively well fed. Don't get me wrong, the two primary carers for him are not well trained, but they do care for him. There was a very touching moment, when Ingo and I left, one of the keepers said, if he does go to Cambodia, which is one of our objective sanctuary option, could I go with you? It was almost, it felt to me almost like a tacit realisation that Bunka didn't need that life. We were very moved by that and they tried their best.

But otherwise, we just saw these walking stereotype behaviours. We saw a little bit of leg movement, which is suggestive moving backward from side-to-side indecision, nervousness, deprived cognitive stimulation. Outside, no scratching post, water, mud wallow, big heaps of sand. It's extremely worrying. Obviously, we worry for how much longer he can continue with this. We all know that elephants don't particularly have long lives in zoos, in zoo captivity, and particularly for males and he does come into must. So they seem to start quite early for Bunka and the psychological effect of being alone again in that state. It's pretty worrying, actually.

Mark is a professional full-time travel writer and radio broadcaster. Through his photos and words he strives to immerse himself in the experiences of travel, to communicate through vivid narratives, to inspire and engage readers.
Mark is a professional full-time travel writer and radio broadcaster. Through his photos and words he strives to immerse himself in the experiences of travel, to communicate through vivid narratives, to inspire and engage readers.

Nikita: You talked about the caretakers, and I completely agree. It's not about villainising the zoo. I appreciate how you've been keeping them in the loop and interacting with them. You also mentioned Cambodia as a solution. The report outlined several options and recommendations for Bunka, and I believe it advised against importing more elephants. What do you think is the most feasible option for Bunka's future?

Mark: We have had a lot of support on social media and we are grateful for it. Some people have suggested launching Twitter storms, but we still have an open dialogue with the zoo. Recently, we had a significant conversation with the person we believe to be the power broker at the zoo, and we feel that the message has got through about the state of Bunka and the solutions that need to occur. Although it's not necessarily in this man's power, it was a great chance for us to sit down and talk to somebody, and he listened. We don't know if this will lead to any action, but we have an open channel with the zoo at the moment. We are actively talking to them about this situation.

As for our plans, we believe that Bunka is probably from the northern Thai, Laos, Cambodia region. We would like him to go to a sanctuary and experience the sort of life that Kavan is now leading. We have spoken with Elephant Nature Park, Darrick Thompson and Lek Chailert, the wonderful elephant conservationist from Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand, about him potentially going to Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. This would be our ultimate goal. We've also had another offer from a sanctuary in the south of Thailand. It is great to have a few options.

Our next step is to show the zoo exactly what can be achieved in terms of rehabilitating an elephant's zest for life and its physical condition by giving it a chance to exist in its home range habitat. This is the kind of objective we're looking at now.

We also need to explain to the zoo that an elephant is not just a tangible asset, something which is of value to them. During the two days, Ingo and I were there, we saw only ten people. Three of them were a family of Russian visitors who just tossed some popcorn over the fence. This is Bunka's life. He wanders around, stands around, does nothing, just looks depressed and then wanders back in. He's not an asset in this state.

We all get this argument that people don't get a chance to travel to countries like Africa or Asia to see wild elephants. They want to learn about them. But actually, what interest is there in seeing a depressed elephant who's in and out of its miserable enclosure, standing there looking fed up? What do they learn?

For us, we've also been discussing with the zoo about ways they could compensate if Bunka was to go to the sanctuary he so richly deserves.

Also, there has been some wonderful technology we've been watching. I think you've posted some Nikita on the robotic elephants. What a great attraction that would be to put a whole herd in his enclosure, which would which would be something really stimulating and interesting for children to come and see.

Also, you know, perhaps the zoo transforms itself to say like an eco-park. Some of the zoos in Argentina are doing this. They're getting rid of their elephants and they're transforming towards a park which reflects local flora and fauna. I can tell you, if I went to Armenia as a first time holiday visitor, would I go to a zoo to see tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes, etc.? Well, I've got those in my own country. Would I actually specifically go to a zoo to see those things? No, I wouldn't. I want a more Armenian experience or a more local experience. If I heard there was an eco-park reflecting the really rich flora and fauna, this really lovely country has and great wildlife. If there was a park reflecting that, I'd most certainly go as a visitor, I’d want to see that.

So we try to talk to them about the options because one of the suggestions hanging around at the moment is the word they want to build a larger enclosure and they want they want to bring in more elephants to keep Bunka company. We’re totally against that. They want to bring Bunka females so he can be ‘married’. You know, for me, this is kind of like an infantile approach to elephant social welfare development. And we just don't want to see any elephants going into that enclosure. We don't want to see any elephants brought into a perishingly cold climate to suffer the same level. And the report outlines the fraught difficulties of actually bringing in male and female elephants, who don't naturally live together.

Yes, bachelor herds, males can live together, but there can also be tensions, particularly if an animal is stressed and potentially aggressive. We could end up with something really nasty. Their idea of a herd of elephants is just ludicrous. When we were in Armenia, Ingo and I did a lot of local press. We had a lot of press coverage when we were out there, which is great. During one interview the zoo’s science director challenged me. He said, ‘oh, you know, you can't transport Bunka, because you can't transport elephants’. This is the same person who was talking about bringing elephants into Yerevan. We have sent the zoo examples of some of elephants being transported, like, for instance, Global Elephant Sanctuary over in Brazil and also obviously the case of Kavan leaving Islamabad. Hopefully soon, Noor Jahan as well. The poor girl. This is breaking my heart. It's like it's so painful to watch the videos coming out of Karachi.

Nikita: I agree, bringing in more elephants doesn't solve the problem, it just perpetuates the captivity of elephants. The report also highlights that it's not guaranteed that new elephants will get along with Bunka and the other elephants because their social bonds are complex. Plus, it would be an additional cost for the Armenian zoo to build extra enclosures. Therefore, it doesn't make sense to bring in more elephants.

The idea of using holographic or robotic elephants is a cool solution. I had a conversation with Khushboo Gupta from PETA about the use of robotic elephants in temples, and they looked incredibly realistic. These solutions are definitely worth exploring. The report was published in February, when can you expect a response from the zoo or any next steps on that end?

Mark: We have received a response from the person on the board who has been our main point of contact. Initially, he was guarded, but after some more emails from us, he agreed to a meeting, which we have just had in the last few days. So, we are talking behind the scenes, and the problem at the moment is that we have no zoo director. The last zoo director had no interest or experience in animal welfare, or any animal, for that matter. They have no mayor, and that's the important post here because the city owns the zoo animals. We're hoping to find out who takes over these roles soon.

We have built up some good contacts in Armenia, including one of the past zoo directors who fully supports our campaign. We wish that person was still in post at the zoo, but they were removed because they wanted to make changes. We are having conversations with somebody very influential at the zoo, and that's ongoing.

Timeline-wise, we know that this can be a frustratingly long process, and we have to be careful and tactful. We will maintain our approach of conversation and negotiation until we feel that the channels have broken down so far that we need to elevate our tactics.

We have been making the report widely known to other organisations and have had support from Born Free for the campaign. We've circulated that report to certain organisations, including AZA, who the zoo wants membership from, but they're not deemed fit enough to hold that membership.

We've approached AZA behind the scenes to say, "Come on, this is the zoo you could potentially support. Look at the conditions this animal is being kept in." We've covered all the bases to leave them fairly isolated with this damning report and offer them a chance to redeem themselves by taking a compassionate stand and releasing Bunka.

Nikita Dhawan is a high school student at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. She has always been passionate about animal advocacy and environmental conservation and is the founder of an animal welfare initiative called Youth for Animals.
Nikita is a high school student at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. She has always been passionate about animal advocacy and environmental conservation and is the founder of an animal welfare initiative called Youth for Animals.

Nikita: I think it's definitely a step in the right direction that you're engaging in these discussions and getting support. These things usually do take time, unfortunately, since you mentioned their cultural implications as well. 

You mentioned there has been so much support. You're almost at eighty-two thousand signatures on, and you have support from Born Free, PREN and other organisations. So, I just wanted to ask, how has the support been locally with local animal organisations? I know you got some press coverage locally, but what's the progress with that?

Mark: It has been quite intense for us lately. We did many news interviews with mainstream channels in Armenia, but it's difficult for us to translate the coverage. We have high-level conservationists and ex-zoo personnel backing us, but they are not willing to go public. Currently, we have to accept them on an advisory basis.

We have supporters, and we've been cultivating people who are interested in animal welfare in Armenia. This is an ongoing effort that we're continually updating. We sent the report to a journalist contact, and we're hoping that she will have galvanised some press coverage, but we're not sure where it stands currently. However, the report is factual and won't go out of date unless they make significant changes to the zoo. We'll continue to try and cultivate support.

The key for us now is to wait and see who the new zoo director will be. We're nervous, but if by some chance, they're sympathetic and have an understanding of zoology beyond just being a business person, this could be a significant change for us. It's a bit of a lottery at the moment, but hopefully, we'll have news soon about who is in charge of the zoo. It would be great to know.

Nikita: I think just since the last time I spoke to you, there's just been so much progress. We're all rooting for Bunka and I'm sure all the readers feel for him. So can you just tell us what can people do to help and how can they support the campaign as of now?

Mark: We want people's voices to speak out on this and certainly circulating the posts we put out is a great help in supporting the posts we put out. This is all we can do at the moment in terms of engaging our supporters while we take this negotiatory stance, which is of working with the zoo behind the scenes. Keep faith with us. We're doing our absolute best here, and we hope this tactic will work.

But if it doesn't, I promise you, we will ask people to raise their voices for Bunka as they've done in your fantastic campaign and as the wonderful people at Edmonton are doing to fight for Lucy's rights as well. So keep supporting us. When we really need to hear your voice, let's say perhaps emailing the zoo, etc.

But as I said at the moment, we've sent emails to the administration of the Armenian government and await a response. It's very difficult. So you need to have a targeted person. Those targets in the near future will be the city new mayor and the zoo director, which are not in place at the moment.

So watch this space, supporters. We are hugely, hugely grateful for all the messages of support we get because we remain determined to free Bunka.

Nikita: Mark, your work and your journey, these efforts are so inspiring. We hope that the readers feel inspired to read Bunka's story and advocate for the rights of animals. So, once again, I just wanted to thank you for joining me today.

Mark: We're extremely grateful to you, and good luck with Shankar as well. You know, we're rooting for him to find a better life one day. So, we know you're doing your absolute utmost, and that's fantastic.

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Nikita Dhawan is a high school student at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. She has always been passionate about animal advocacy and environmental conservation and is the founder of an animal welfare initiative called Youth for Animals.

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