Animal welfare groups from around the world have expressed their deep concern that Zimbabwe may be in the process of secretly shipping off 35 wild-caught baby elephants to China who have been held in captivity in Hwange National Park for almost a year since being ripped away from their mothers and herds. The shipment would be in defiance of a landmark vote at the August meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangerd Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) at which a near total ban on live elephant exports from Zimbabwe and Botswana was agreed. As the new CITES rules don’t take effect until November 26th, campaigners fear that Zimbabwe is attempting to export the elephants before the deadline.
According to the CITES trade database, Zimbabwe has previously exported 108 young elephants to zoos in China since 2012. Fears for the welfare of the most recent 35 elephants increased in February this year when Humane Society International/Africa obtained footage of these animals pacing in their small pens in Hwange National Park, where they remain to this day. The footage showed the elephants wide-eyed with ears splayed in a defensive posture, and temporal streaming (dark streaks down the side of their face from the temporal gland), indicating stress. All of the elephants are less than six years of age with some allegedly as young as two years old; HSI/Africa has been told that two of the elephants are being bottle fed, indicating they are not yet weaned.
Sources on the ground in Zimbabwe report that ZimParks officials have applied for visas to ship them to China, and that Chinese representatives have arrived at the park to make preparations for the elephants to be moved. According to local sources, Song Li, a Chinese businesswoman who allegedly brokered all previous exports, has been seen in the Hwange Parks area and is expected to visit the elephants, shipment crates have also arrived.
Although the elephants have now been in captivity for too long to make release back to the wild a possibility, an opportunity for rewilding and rehoming the #Zim35 is feasible at a large sanctuary in Zimbabwe, where they will be introduced to other older females as an essential part of their social and emotional well being.
“We are extremely worried about the fate of these elephants. In the wild, calves remain closely bonded to their natal family groups, with females never leaving their families and males only leaving at 12 – 15 years of age. To forciably steal away these baby elephants from the wild is utterly barbaric, both for them and the grieving families they leave behind, but to compound that by condemning them to captivity in China will be a life sentence of suffering,” said Elephant biologist Audrey Delsink, Wildlife Director at Humane Society International/Africa, in an email sent to WAN. “If Zimbabwe goes ahead and exports these animals for captivity despite the CITES ruling, it will show an appalling lack of respect for international conservation and wildlife protection laws. The Zimbabwe government has a small window of opportunity left to put morals before money and allow these young elephants to live amongst their own kind again in a sanctuary, and to stop any such future captures.”
Elephant experts and wildlife protection groups across Africa have called for the elephant export to be halted and for all future captures to be stopped. The African Elephant Coalition, an alliance of 32 African countries, has called on Zimbabwe to end the export of wild elephants to zoos and other captive facilities. In March of this year, the Zimbabwe-based People and Earth Solidarity Law Network (now called Advocates4Earth) filed a legal challenge to the Zimbabwean government. While this challenge is being considered by the Courts, the export of these baby elephants would be potentially unlawful.
“The secrecy around the ongoing capture and trade of Zimbabwe’s wildlife exposes lack of accountability, transparency, and a hint of arrogance by Zimbabwean authorities. They seem prepared to go ahead despite global outcry and advice. They also seem keen to go against local pressure, and local legal processes considering the case we launched early this year which is centred on the welfare and trading of these elephants,” said Lenin Chisaira, Environmental Lawyer, Advocates4Earth.
2012 to 2017: Zimbabwe exported a total of 109 baby elephants to Chinese zoos. During the 2012 shipment, all but one juvenile elephant survived after arriving in China. Photos of the surviving baby elephants, standing alone in dark, barren cells, were shocking. One elephant in the December 2016 shipment died during transit upon arrival in China due to an overdose of tranquilizer according to the Chinese customs documentation.
October 2017: Humane Society International released exclusive footage of 14 young elephants being held prior to export to Chinese zoos who had been captured from Hwange National Park by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA). The footage showed abusive treatment of the calves as they were beaten and kicked whilst being sedated and taken away to the Park’s holding pens.
January 2018: Humane Society International/Africa and 33 partners, submitted a letter to Zimbabwe’s new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, pleading for a halt to the horrific abuse and practice of capturing elephants from the wild for captivity.
August 2019: CITES Parties agreed to a near ban on the export of wild-caught African elephants from Zimbabwe and Botswana to captive situations, with exceptions only if in consultation with the CITES Animals Committee and the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, an expert group that has publicly stated it does not believe there to be conservation benefits to wild caught elephants being sent to captive facilities. Notably, the government of China abstained while Zimbabwe along with the United States voted against the near-total ban. African elephants in Zimbabwe are listed on Appendix II of CITES with an annotation that allows live elephants to be exported to “appropriate and acceptable” destinations. Under this definition, Zimbabwe has been capturing live baby African elephants in the wild for years and exporting them to zoos in China and elsewhere. The new position agreed by CITES Parties in August 2019 clarifies that captive situations outside of the elephants’ natural range and not for conservation purposes, do not constitute appropriate or acceptable destinations.