Conservationists and wildlife trade experts from non-governmental organizations across the globe are calling for a halt to Namibia’s controversial capture and export of wild elephant family groups. This includes the country’s unique desert-adapted elephant population, which are already threatened by years of drought, habitat loss, and trophy hunting.
The Namibian government announced in August that it had auctioned off 57 wild elephants to three bidders which sold for 5.9 million Namibian dollars ($537,000). The government would end up exporting 42 of them internationally.
Citing both legal and ethical reasons, conservation NGOs and wildlife trade experts have publicly called to end all elephant captures and exports.
“African elephants are intelligent, sentient animals with highly developed emotional complexity, and strong social and family bonds that last a lifetime,” Jeff Flocken, President of Humane Society International,said in a statement sent to WAN. “It is unconscionable cruelty to subject these animals to brutal and traumatic capture, separating them from their families, and condemning them to lifelong captivity for the sake of human amusement.”
Technically, Namibia is only allowed to export live elephants to conservation programs inside of Africa, according to the terms of the listing of their elephant population under CITES. However, Namibia uses a contested legal interpretation of these terms to justify sending wild, live-caught elephants to captive facilities outside of their natural range. This interpretation is highly controversial and sets a dangerous precedent for the future protection of wild elephants from the impact of international trade.
The CITES Animals Committeehas also expressed concerns about this divisive issue and the CITES Standing Committee plans to examine the legality of Namibia’s interpretation as it applies to exports of live elephants at its next meeting in 2022.
Despite the current controversy, the CITES Secretariat issued a statement on September 8th, all but endorsing the planned exports from Namibia, only to revise it a few days later after criticism from several parties to CITES and concerned NGOs.
Namibia has attempted to justify the controversial capture and export of live elephants by claiming that it is necessary to reduce elephant populations and minimize “persistent human-elephant conflict.” However, according to available census data and a recent field investigation, very few elephants are present in the targeted arid Kunene Region. Elephant populations in this area are already threatened from drought, high infant mortality, and the very low number of remaining adult bulls.
“Capturing, selling, and exporting elephants will not prevent conflict with humans,” stated Daniela Freyer, co-founder of Pro Wildlife. “There are other humane, effective, and proven ways to mitigate problems and ensure co-existence between people and elephants.”
In addition to the legal controversy surrounding these proposed exports, many experts share serious concerns about animal welfare, mortality during capture, transport, and the life prospects for these animals at their final destination.
Between 2010 and 2019, African countries exported 194 wild caught elephants. The majority of the elephants came from Zimbabwe, followed by Namibia. At least 22 of them are alleged to be dead. The biggest importer was China, followed by the U.S. The IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group does not endorse such “ex situ” exports because they do not contribute to the conservation of the species in its natural habitat.