Saving Brigitte's Elephants: A Controversial Death Sentence At The Lyon Zoo

French sex symbol turned animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot is shining a light on Baby and Nepal, two former circus elephants infected with tuberculosis, now facing euthanasia.

Baby and Nepal in their enclosure in Lyon's Parc de la Tête d'Or
Baby and Nepal in their enclosure in Lyon's Parc de la Tête d'Or
Catherine Vincent

LYON – Seen from afar, they look so tiny. All around the small enclosure they’ve been allocated in the zoo of the Parc de la Tête d'Or in the center of Lyon, a sturdy fence keeps passers-by at a safe 20-meter distance.

"Elephant enclosure isolation perimeter. Thanks for your understanding," a laconic sign reads.

On this cold January afternoon, Baby and Nepal, the two elephants suspected of carrying tuberculosis – and threatened with euthanasia because of it – have just had their second meal of the day. And they made a point of enjoying it, unaware as they are of the death threat hanging over their heads, and oblivious to the media and legal kerfuffle they have triggered.

Even before it blew out to extravagant proportions in the last few weeks, the case was already pretty bizarre. On Jan. 2, Gilbert Edelstein, director of the Pinder circus and owner of the two elephants, wrote an open letter to Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon, accusing him of wanting to "assassinate" his animals.

On Jan. 4, former French actress and animal activist Brigitte Bardot threatened to apply for Russian citizenship if French authorities stuck to their decision to euthanize the elephants. On Jan 6, about 200 people formed a human chain around the elephants’ enclosure, "to save Baby and Nepal." On Jan. 8, Monaco’s Princess Stephanie jumped in to condemn what she said would be a "radical and irreversible" decision.

There is still hope for Baby and Nepal – On Jan. 2, the Council of State agreed to hear the appeal launched by the Pinder circus against the Dec. 11, 2012 decree requiring that the two animals be put down within a month.

But how did two old (respectively 42 and 43 years-old) and rather aggressive – Pinder gave them to the zoo because they fought with the others – circus elephants suddenly become the center of such a heated debate? So much so that they now have the full attention of France’s highest administrative court… The media circus has undoubtedly much to do with Gilbert Edelstein’s pugnacity and connections.

Animal rights movement are gaining momentum – a petition to save Baby and Nepal garnered more than 80,000 signatures on the Internet. But if the case of these two female Asian elephants, which has been plaguing the city of Lyon for the past two years, has taken such proportions, it is also because it raises a delicate and complex health issue.

It all started in 2010, when the Parc de la Tête d’Or’s new vet David Gomis (now working at the Montpellier Zoo), decided to run a serological test for tuberculosis on the two elephants – who had been entrusted to the zoo in 1999 by the Pinder circus. Over the past 10 years or so, the disease had been found in many elephants living in captivity. However, the tests are hard to interpret and cannot tell with certainty whether animals are infected or not. But "better safe than sorry," as the saying goes, so much so that in Jan. 2011, Baby and Nepal were quarantined, together with another elephant named Java.

When Java died in Aug. 2012, an autopsy was performed. On Dec. 11, 2012, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupation Health & Safety (Anses) gave local authorities the results of the analysis: Java was carrying the Mycobacterium tuberculosis strain – the causative agent of most cases of tuberculosis, highly contagious and transmissible to man.

Dangerous to humans

On the same day, the prefect of the Rhône region, Jean-François Carenco, signed a decree urging the city of Lyon to put down Baby and Nepal within 30 days – a position the prefect says he still "fully stands by." "Let me remind those who insult me by asking me for ‘humane’ treatment, that we are talking about two elephants, i.e. animals," he insists.

"According to health and safety regulations," says Carenco, "any animal that has been in close contact with an animal diagnosed with this disease is considered sick. Both these elephants are therefore sick, from an administrative point of view. If they were to contaminate a child tomorrow, I would be held criminally responsible."

Shortly after, the court decided to take precautionary measures, to limit the population, -- and especially the elephants’ caretakers -- from being exposed to the disease. The latter, since Java’s autopsy results, do not go near Baby and Nepal without wearing a sort of deep-sea diving suit.

A date for the euthanasia is chosen – but is then postponed by the prefect, who is feeling the pressure now that the case is being followed closely by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Many aspects of this story are unclear, starting with the reality of the infection, whose start and severity are very difficult to determine. Should new tests be performed on Baby and Nepal, as Gilbert Edelstein advocates? "From a medical point of view, a positive response to this new test would reinforce the suspicion of Nepal and Baby’s exposure, but a negative response would leave us in the same state of uncertainty," says Marc Artois, a professor of infectious diseases at Lyon’s veterinary school, VetAgro Sup. Not everyone is as cautious.

Supposing that Baby and Nepal do carry the tuberculosis bacteria, is there any way of treating them? "There is a stark difference between certain American zoos, where elephants are treated for tuberculosis, and the attitude in Europe, where experts advise against treatment," says Dr. Artois.

Local breeders associations point out that TB treatments are very long and complicated, and can lead to developing antibiotic resistance, and because of this, are strictly reserved to humans. Since they have to put down their entire herd when one of their animals is sick, they have difficulty understanding why things should be different for the two residents of the Parc de la Tête d'Or. But an elephant is not a cow, and the decision taken regarding Baby and Nepal could set a precedent.

Of course, health and safety regulations stipulate that tuberculosis must be declared when discovered in any animal species. But when a case is reported in a wild animal living in captivity, authorities face a regulatory vacuum and are free to decide whether the case requires quarantine, treatment or euthanasia. So the question is – is it possible to manage the risks to public health without threatening endangered species?

“If we decide to put down all the zoo animals carrying tuberculosis, we risk killing off endangered species. What happens tomorrow, when we realize that orang-outans or other primates in captivity are carrying the disease?” asks Dr Ollivet Courtois, for whom it is urgent to find alternatives to euthanasia, starting with better screening for the disease.

Could Baby and Nepal be put in quarantine, as some organizations have suggested? Gilbert Edelstein wants to build them an enclosure on his private property.

Jean-François Carenco isn’t against finding other options to euthanasia. “I have found a place where they could go,” he says.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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