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Ruperta, the starving elephant who’s come to symbolize Venezuela’s crisis

Images of extremely thin animal on social networks prompt outpouring of sympathy and outrage

A family of elephants in a zoo in the Netherlands.
A family of elephants in a zoo in the Netherlands. EFE

An African elephant called Ruperta has become a powerful symbol of Venezuela’s worsening crisis. Photographs of the extremely thin 45-year-old female alone in her pen at Caricuao Zoo, in the west of the capital, Caracas, have been posted on social networks, prompting calls for action.

Paris Jackson, the daughter of pop singer Michael Jackson, tweeted: “this is INHUMANE and INFURIATING. spread the word to help these beautiful creatures that so much deserve a better life.”

Responding to the international outcry over the condition of Ruperta, on Sunday Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro said the pachyderm’s condition was due to her advanced age, describing the response on the social networks as “a novel, a show.” Meanwhile, Angélica Romero, the head of Inparques, the national parks institute that runs the zoo, has been sacked.

A file photo of Ruperta the elephant.
A file photo of Ruperta the elephant.

Ruperta’s condition has worsened as Venezuela’s crisis has deepened in recent years. Six years ago she could be seen on YouTube videos, slightly overweight and eating large amounts of grass.

On Tuesday, the authorities assigned a public prosecutor to look into Ruperta’s decline, along with two biologists to assess her health.

Two days earlier, residents of Caracas had collected food for the animal, but this was rejected by Inparques. “It’s a rule. We cannot take food without knowing where it comes from, because it could be rotten or contaminated,” an Inparques employee told EL PAÍS.

Some 50 zoo animals were reported to have died from starvation in Venezuela last year

But the same source admitted that animals at the zoo are not being fed properly. Ruperta’s diet consists mainly of pumpkins and papaya, when she should be eating up to 70 kilograms of hay, grass and fruit each day. An Inparques press statement said the elephant was “stable” and being looked after by specialists.

In July of 2016, Marlene Sifontes, an Inparques employee, said that some 50 animals had died in Caracas’ zoos from starvation.

The government launched an investigation last year into the deaths, but has issued no report. Sifontes blamed the worsening conditions at Venezuela’s zoos on budget cuts and the economic crisis. “We have reported this on a number of occasions and brought cases before the State Attorney, but nothing has been done,” she said.

Venezuela is mired in one of the worst economic crises in Latin America as a result of the fall in oil prices, corruption, a drought that has hit electricity supplies and government policies. There are long-standing food and medicine shortages and the country has one of the highest inflation levels in the world.

A recent government decision to strip the Venezuela National Assembly of its lawmaking powers and transfer those powers to the Supreme Court of Justice was widely criticized internationally.

English version by Nick Lyne

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