In September 1899, a month before the start of the Anglo Boer War, Gunning visited Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town where he viewed his private menagerie of animals housed at Groote Schuur, South Africa’s first zoo. 

Groote Schuur Zoo, Cape Town, South Africa IMAGE CREDIT Cape Town History Group


In October 1899 Gunning moved the live animal collection from the garden at the museum to the farm Rus en Urbe.

Rus en Urbe, is the present site of the National Zoological Gardens. Gunning served as Director of the zoo from 1899 until 1914. 

The farmhouse on Rus en Urbe  IMAGE CREDIT The Pretoria Zoo Facebook Page

Alwin Karl Haagner, a South African ornithologist and mammologist served as a director of the Pretoria Zoological Gardens for a decade. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Kruger National Park.  Prior to his directorship at the zoo, he worked at the Transvaal Museum and as Gunning’s assistant. 

The existence of the National Zoological Gardens was formally acknowledged in 1916.  During Haagner’s directorship animals were transferred from the zoo site in Pretoria to zoos in Europe and the United States of America.

Haagner was accused of being involved in the trade of wild animals and in 1926 an official enquiry concluded that he had used his official position to further his own interests which led to the termination of his position. 

Rudolph Bigalke was the third director  of the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and he served in this position from 1927 to 1962.  One of the most noteworthy expansion projects under Bigalke’s directorship was the creation of the mountain area exhibits to the north of the zoo.  It was remarked that these large enclosures marked the beginning of the end of small cages for zoo animals.

Dr Frank Brand, the fourth director of the National Zoological Gardens, philosophy was that animals should not be housed singly in enclosures.  The Pretoria zoo was noted for being one of the first zoos to make a fundamental movement towards making enclosures for animals as natural as possible.  

Until this point most enclosures for zoo animals were made up of concrete blocks and iron bars which were rarely maintained properly, but under the directorship of Dr Frank Brand the zoo modernised in a more ethical manner.  Dr Brand banned the practise of using animals as entertainment pieces, the animals were not allowed to perform. 

In 2005 the name of the capital of South Africa was changed  from Pretoria to Tshwane.

In 2006, the fifth director of the National Zoological Gardens, Willie Labuschagne made the decision that eighty percent of the animals exhibited at the zoo would be African animals and twenty percent of exhibited animals would be exotic. Labuschagne promised, however,  to retain the popular species such as koala bears and kimono dragons. 

Willie Labaschagne was responsible for the establishment of breeding centres at Lichtenburg, Emerald Animal World and Mokopane. These centres were established to concentrate their efforts on breeding the Cape buffalo, the Cape Wild Dog and the West African pygmy hippo. 


The Pretoria zoo owns two game breeding centres covering an area of more than 7000 hectares.  According to published media articles, the game breeding centres act as important gene pool reservoirs and are used for the breeding of threatened species. 

Mokopane `Biodiversity Conservation Centre, SANBI  IMAGE CREDIT Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre

The Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre was established in 1979 and opened to the public in October 1981 as a satellite of the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria.  The centre compromises of a zoo like environment, breeding camps and a free ranging area situated approximately two-hours’ drive from Pretoria. 

According to information supplied by the Zoological Gardens, the motivation for such a project was to have a tourist/recreational attraction for the area of Mokopane and its people and to protect the underground the water supply of the town. The town council approached the Zoological Gardens to establish a project similar to the Lichtenberg Game Breeding Centre.  The agreement expires in 2078. 


The main aim of Centre, established in 1974, was to assist and increase the National Zoo’s breeding programmes of endangered species and to supplement the populations of local and international zoos.  The centre was operated by the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa. 

The main advantage of the breeding centre was its location, because of the amount of water in the area which created a paradise for birds. 

Image Credit: Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre

However, on the 26th of October 2011 the situation at the Pretoria zoo 6000 hectare Lichtenberg Game Breeding Centre in North West Province was reported to be critical. 

Animals were dying, watering holes and dams were drying up.  The once thriving breeding centre was cited as being an embarrassment for conservation in South Africa.  Scores of animals starved to death despite the efforts of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association of the Molopo region, their efforts allegedly stonewalled by the officials at the Pretoria zoo. 


In 2001 the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa established the Emerald Animal World which is housed at the Emerald Safari Resort and Casino in Vanderbijlpark.  The facility compromises of a so called game park and a zoo. 

Emerald Animal World  IMAGE CREDIT Emerald Resort and Casino

The sixth director of the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, Dr Clifford Nxomani strategy was to grow the number of visitors to the zoo as a basis to ensure financial sustainability of the organisation, to increase the education impact of the zoo as well as positioning the National Zoological Gardens as a world class research centre and conservation organisation. 

Under the directorship of Dr Clifford Nxomani, the National Zoological Gardens have articulated their desire to be seen as, and function as a key role player in the City of Tshwane tourism sector. 

Dr Clifford Nxomani held this position for nine years.

The current director of the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria is Mr Leslie Mudimeli. On the 18th of January 2020 he was quoted in various media articles in response to reports that the lives of the animals at the Pretoria zoo were at risk, the elephants were mentioned in these reports. 


The South African National Biodiversity Institute was established on the 1st September 2002 through the signing into force of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 by President Thabo Mbeki. 

On the 5th June 2018 the deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs Ms Barbara Thomson announced that the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa would be transferred to SANBI in terms of the National Environmental Management Act NEMBA.   Previously the zoo was an agency of the Department of Science and Technology. 

“The transfer of the zoo will enable SANBI to fulfil the function of protecting and preserving collections of animals in appropriate enclosures as outline in environmental legislation

The zoo expects to engage with 160 000 learners on a variety of biodiversity topics”.


Animal collections from the ancient times are typically described as menageries. The term menagerie can be defined as any small collection of exotic animals.  The main purpose of these animal collections was to provide amusement to the elite. 

Enclosures were designed in such a manner that animals could be easily observed were lured by means of food offering an entertaining experience for the visitor. Zoological gardens were perceived as living natural museums that focused on educating the public by exhibiting ecological relationships between habitat and species. 

The rondavel inspired gatehouses of the original entrance to Pretoria’s National Zoological Gardens were a rare colonial era reference to indigenous African architecture.  During the Apartheid era they were replaced by the present entrance. 

The original entrance of the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, South Africa IMAGE CREDIT Pretoria Zoo Facebook Page

The zoo received national status in 1916. Pretoria ranks among the top urban zoos because it pioneered a historic shift from buildings that housed animals for display to ones from which humans observe animals.  

The 1938 Lowveld Enclosures were created from indigenous bush on the edge of the zoo and were the largest in the world, each being about an acre in size.  The viewing stations above the enclosures were modelled on the nineteenth century military observation posts that still dot the South African landscape. 

The old and new elephant houses at the National Zoological Gardens, Pretoria, South Africa IMAGE CREDIT Margaret Haywood

Behind the old elephant house stands the present one which  dates from the Apartheid era and has been described as an uneasy mix of military silo and giant rondavel. 

The inspiration is not local, but the first modernist elephant house, designed in 1935 by the Russian constructivist Berthold Lubetkin for London’s Whipsnade Zoo. 

The recorded dimensions were based on the movement of elephants who, when deprived of space, walk endlessly in circles, research suggested there was no point in building large enclosures for large pachyderms because their movements always fell into small repetitive patters. 


A well-researched report which includes plans, diagrams and imagery of the elephants enclosure was published by the University of Pretoria in 2016. 

In chapter four of this report, it is stated that the elephant enclosure was not compatible for the three elephants residing at the zoo at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa.    

“There is not enough room for the three elephants to roam and meander despite plenty of wasted and unused space available at the zoo. 

Allowing for a larger herd to live together is unattainable due to the limited space of the enclosure.  Elephants in the wild are typically active for eighteen hours a day most of this time is spent roaming over vast distances and socialising with their herds, foraging for fresh food and vegetation.”

There is still no attempt of mental or evidence of physical enrichment in the enclosure. This could be one of the contributing factors as to why Charlie is swaying repetitively backwards and forwards, a behaviour characteristic indicative of poor welfare and health. 

Despite the documented health issues with regard to sand impaction there does not seem to have been an improvement on the feeding methods for Charlie. 

Are the barriers are still unsafe for Charlie should he try to escape? The valid information in this report should discourage any further attempt to introduce more elephants to the enclosure. 

It was reported and confirmed by the zoo director in 2003, that Charlie had escaped from the elephant enclosure.  It was reported that he had fallen into the moat. 

In 2015 Dr Marianne Brindley wrote an article which was published in the South African media, in which she stated: “the elephant enclosure really infuriated me, there they were, the majestic giants of Africa, looking pathetic, in fact showing less character and temperament than the stuffed elephants in the Natural History Museum.

There was not a blade of grass in this “modern” enclosure-cage, desert elephants would have felt more at home. These savannah dwellers stood beside an area of green sludge clearly meant to offer them a sense of water. As I watched these remnants of the illustrious beings of the wild, I spoke to a keeper about captivity. “Oh no, I was assured: “Look they have those ground holes to play in” Later in the day they were thrown some branches, apparently so that they could “remember” how once upon a time in the wild, elephants did carry branches.”


Do we in 2021 have the moral right to allow wild animals to suffer just because we are curious about them? Zoos justify their existence arguing that they offer education, research and conservation.

Those in support of zoos believe that in developed nations zoos are some of the best vehicles for conservation education. The thesis included in this report is written by Elizabeth Jacoba Venter. Venter compares and evaluates the Conservation Education programmes of the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa with two other zoos.

In this study she quotes the following: “Jackson indicated that Africa with its protected areas should be able to offer intimate wildlife experiences and therefore zoos are not necessary. 

According to Hancock’s the educational potential of zoos is largely neglected; and if zoos gave serious attention to education, they would have greater variety in their animal collections. 

Jackson also reasons that although zoos are in an excellent position to educate many zoos fall short because of the challenges of funding.  The executive director of PAZAAB, Stephen van der Spuy, indicated that the Johannesburg zoo, a wealthy institution by African standards, does not have enough staff for the volume of school children going through its gates to ensure education interaction.” 

Venter concludes by stating that the Conservation Education programmes were successful in increasing the knowledge of the learners and in increasing their intention to change behaviour, the study also clearly indicated the potential to increase the attitudes and values of learners was not always successful. Important results of her study indicated that the training of zoo educators should receive more attention to ensure the success of these programmes.


We need to question whether seeing a solitary elephant or elephants out of their natural social grouping, out of their natural environment in a zoo offer the correct or best education opportunity for our children.

Would a wildlife documentary narrated in South African languages or an on-line live safari not offer a more realistic opportunity for our children. Both of these could be offered to large groups of children in the present elephant enclosure at the Pretoria zoo?

During the global COVID_19 pandemic lock-down live safaris were streamed across the world. Offering this opportunity to large groups of children were they can be transported into the wild in real time would be a very effective educational opportunity.



Pumbi and her calf Dineo IMAGE CREDIT The Pretoria Zoo Facebook Page

On the 3rd April 2012 the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa announced that Pumbi had died. She was born in the Kruger National Park in 1985 and arrived at the zoo as an “orphan” in 1987.

She was treated for a suspected infection of the uterus but she started showing respiratory distress. “As Pumbi’s food intake was sporadic it made administering the drugs very difficult” said Dr Ian Espies the zoo’s chief veterinarian.


On Monday 21st March 2011 Dineo, also known as Lerato, was born at the National Zoological Gardens. She was too short to reach her mother Pumbi so she was bottle fed by zoo keepers.

Dineo died on the 11th of April 2011, the official statement said that she had breathing problems.

Dineo IMAGE CREDIT Getty Images


Tandy, also known as Thandi, was born in Hwange National Park in 1981. In 2001 she accidentally killed her handler on a film set, his name was Fiso Mbambo.

Tandy was on loan from circus owner Brian Boswell to the National Zoological Gardens when she died in 2017 of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis.

This image was taken at the Pretoria Zoo prior to 2017 IMAGE CREDIT The Pretoria Zoo Facebook Page


Landa was thirty-six when she died at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria on the 27th October 2020. She had lived at the zoo since 1986. She died of acute colic she was under medical care when she died.

She was born in the Kruger National Park in 1984, she arrived at the zoo in 1986.

In January 2020 the welfare and care of the animals at the Pretoria zoo was questioned. Director of conservation and animal collection at the National Zoological Gardens Tracy Rehse said that the welfare of the animals was their primary focus.


Charlie, is the only surviving elephant at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. In the open letter written to the Minister Barbara Creecy, concerns have been raised about his mental and physical well being. Charlie, suffers from colic which causes him discomfort.

Attached to the letter, beneath all the signatures, are the full medical reports of the elephants listed in this brief report. The elephants are also discussed in more details in this letter.

Research is continuing with regard to elephants that lived at the National Zoological Gardens prior to 1980’s.


Elephant experts and Members of PREN will be meeting with representatives from the National Zoological Gardens and SANBI on the 31st of March 2021 to discuss the welfare of Charlie and to address possible solutions that will benefit Charlie who has given his life to entertain humans since he was captured nearly forty years ago from Hwange in Zimbabwe.

The Pretoria zoo is perfectly positioned to become a pioneering institution by considering freeing Charlie to the wild and converting the elephant enclosure into a centre of conservation excellence. Zoos all over the world are closing their elephant exhibitions, there is no zoo in the world that can offer an elephant the area of space that is required to maintain their welfare.

Offering children and adults a unique opportunity of experiencing a live wildlife safari and documentaries broadcast on big screens in this arena would encourage more visitors to the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa.

The relocation, rehabilitation and rewilding process would be an opportunity to create further interest for South Africa and an opportunity for vital ongoing research.

Researched and Written for the EMS Foundation Megan Carr March 2021

© Copyright Pro Elephant Network 2021. All rights reserved.