Claims of animal abuse swirl around long, murky probe into death of South African giraffes in Brazil

Claims of animal abuse swirl around long, murky probe into death of South African giraffes in Brazil
(Photo: Harshil Gudka-Unsplash)

The unusual cargo of 18 giraffes that landed in Brazil in 2021 has resulted in a years-long scandal, shrouded in police investigations and allegations of animal mistreatment after four of them died.

On 11 November 2021, extraordinary “cargo” landed in Brazil. Eighteen giraffes arrived at an airport there – they had been exported from South Africa and some were meant to head to BioParque do Rio, a private zoo in Rio de Janeiro.

But the animals have become the centre of a years-long scandal involving a police investigation in Brazil and allegations of animal mistreatment.

After their arrival in Brazil in 2021, three of the giraffes died following their escape from a holding area they were being kept in while adapting to their new surroundings.

On 8 July 2023, a fourth giraffe died, putting the matter back into focus.

Daily Maverick has established that the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment is aware of what happened in Brazil but has not been informed of the findings of investigations carried out there.

It is understood that the surviving 14 giraffes are being kept at the Portobello Resort and Safari in Mangaratiba, along Rio de Janeiro’s south coast.

Daily Maverick sent questions to a representative of a company in Johannesburg that, according to its website, has its own farms and specialises in giraffe exports, to check if it was linked to the animals that ended up in Brazil, but did not receive any response to emails or a text message.

The 18 giraffes were exported to Brazil in November 2021 via a chartered flight from OR Tambo International Airport. This, based on one Brazilian government report, cost more than a million (presumably US) dollars.

Crates and cranes

According to the online magazine International Transport Journal: “Intradco Global and Chapman Freeborn ensured the giraffes’ speedy loading to reduce the time spent on the ground at the airport. After arriving in Rio de Janeiro, cranes were used to efficiently offload the six crates…”

Daily Maverick twice emailed questions about the giraffes to Intradco Global and Chapman Freeborn, but no response had been received by the time of publication.

Deaths after escape

In a statement in January 2022, BioParque do Rio said the 18 giraffes came from “an authorised site for sustainable management and community development with these species in South Africa”.

“All logistics were monitored by a… team specialised in handling to ensure the safety and well-being of the animals,” it said.

animal abuse

Some of the giraffes exported from South Africa to Brazil in 2021 that sparked a police invesitgation in that country, resulting in arrests. (Photo: Brazil’s Federal Police)

The zoo confirmed the deaths of the three giraffes. “During management operations, a group of giraffes escaped from a management area, where their adaptation takes place and, after containment and return to the pens, three… died,” it said.

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After the first three giraffes died in December 2021, investigations were launched.

At the end of 2021 Brazil’s Federal Police said that two men were arrested for mistreating the (at that stage) 15 animals. It was not clear what happened to them.

In 2022 the Federal Police issued another statement saying it had presented its findings about its investigation. “During the investigation, it remained clear that there were deliberate failures by public servants in the process that authorised the importation of animals to Brazil,” it said.

‘Routine of mistreatment’

The investigation found that focus was placed on reducing costs, which was detrimental to the animals.

“All 18… specimens were subjected to a routine of mistreatment, resulting in the death of three… of the giraffes,” the Federal Police’s statement said.

“…[It] should be noted that the purpose of the police inquiry is to investigate any criminal conduct committed during the import process and in the maintenance of animals… [N]othing prevents other individuals or legal entities from being held responsible… in the civil and/or administrative sphere.”

Some findings stated that the ‘lack of… adequate enclosures resulted in the animals being kept in a situation of abuse’.

A March 2022 report, under a Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) letterhead, and also Brazil’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, detailed other issues surrounding the giraffes.

It said that after the deaths of the three giraffes at the end of 2021 a threefold investigation was launched into the importation process, circumstances around the dead animals and the conditions under which the 15 surviving animals were being kept.

Some findings stated that the “lack of… adequate enclosures resulted in the animals being kept in a situation of abuse”.

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The report said that in February 2022 police officers had exhumed the bodies of the three dead giraffes as part of their investigations. It also suggested the surviving animals should be repatriated and, until then, kept at the Portobello safari resort.

Parasite discovered

In response to the fourth giraffe’s death in July, Ibama said that the Haemonchus parasite had been detected in the animal, which had been undergoing treatment for this.

Meanwhile, on 8 July, the day the fourth giraffe died, BioParque do Rio said that, during routine procedures, the Haemonchus parasite was discovered in six giraffes.

“The technical committee, made up of six veterinarians, immediately started a medication protocol, placing the animals in an isolated enclosure and under intensive observation,” Ibama said.

“Five animals responded quickly to treatment. However, one of them showed resistance to the drug. During the last week, the technical team started other treatment protocols.”

The giraffe that had not responded well to the treatment had suddenly deteriorated and died.

animal abuse

Bioparque do Rio was involved in the import of 18 giraffes from South Africa in 2021. Four have since died. (Photo: Bioparque do Rio copy)

Permit issued

South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment told Daily Maverick last week that it was aware of some of what had transpired in Brazil.

Spokesperson Peter Mbelengwa said that on 25 March 2022 it had received a query from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) management authority of Brazil about the three giraffes that had died.

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He said that a Cites permit, which stated the holder of it should contact an authorised environmental management inspector 48 hours before import or export to arrange an inspection, had been issued.

Mbelengwa said the relevant freight agent “booked for an inspection of the consignment of 18 giraffes destined for Brazil on a charter flight and the inspection appointment was… confirmed by [the department].”

An environment management inspector conducted an inspection on 11 November 2021 and endorsed the Cites permit at a warehouse at OR Tambo International Airport.

“At the time of the inspection, all 18 giraffes appeared to be in good health,” Mbelengwa said.

“The Brazilian authorities did not share the outcomes of their investigation other than to say that they were concerned about the welfare of the animals at the zoo where they were kept and that they would remove them from that zoo.”

Tall order

A quick online search shows that giraffes can sell from about R14,500 for a young animal to about R25,000 for an adult bull in South Africa. In terms of exporting, the government says that “to export animals or genetic material such as embryos, ova or semen from [SA], you must apply for an export permit from the Registrar of Animal Improvement”. A relevant breeders’ society or registering authority also has to recommend an application to export. According to another South African government website, this country is a founding member of Cites, which “aims to ensure that international trade in listed species of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild”. Giraffes are on the Cites Appendix II list, meaning the animals “are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled”. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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