Baby elephants from Zimbabwe headed for Chinese zoos

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Thirty seven baby elephants forcibly taken from their mothers in the wild in Hwange National Park are about to be flown to Chinese zoos, despite an international outcry against previous exports. A number of the baby elephants from similar shipments in 2012 and 2015 died shortly after arrival and two of the elephants now awaiting shipment have already died.

In 2012, only four elephants of the eight survived the journey and another three died shortly after arriving in China, leaving only one lonely survivor. In September 2015, National Geographic reported that elephants from the latest shipment in China were being mistreated and were slipping into poor health.

Export of elephants is sanctioned under CITES regulations, as long as trade in individual animals doesn’t threaten the long-term survival of the species. 

“Past elephants from Zimbabwe sent to Chinese zoos have died or languished in deplorable conditions,” says Iris Ho, Program Manager for Wildlife at Humane Society International, “Sending wild African elephants to zoos in China is either a literal death sentence or akin to life in prison to these animals.” 

According to Johnny Rodrigues from the Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force two of the recently captured baby elephants have already died from starvation and thirst due to neglect.

China apparently has ‘ordered’ 200 juvenile elephants to be captured for a variety of zoos and safari parks across the country over the next five years. 

“If these elephant captures and pending transfers to China are confirmed,” explains Ho, “there is highly likely diplomatic consideration involved in the Chinese authorities’ approval of the import.” She pointed to the Chinese president’s trip to Zimbabwe last year and the wildlife ‘conservation’ deal that they inked. 

Chinese president, Xi Jinping, said then that China would continue to help Zimbabwe improve its capability to fund its protection for its wildlife by donating equipment, conducting exchanges of experience, and buying its wild animals. It’s understood that the capture equipment for the young elephants was donated by China.

According to the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, there are currently around 46 000 elephants in Hwange National Park and another 6 000 in adjacent communal and safari areas. If these numbers are true, it is hard to argue that the removals would have a significant impact on numbers.

In August this year, Zimbabwe’s wildlife authority removed 100 elephants from Hwange National Park to another park more than 200 kilometres away in a bid to reduce elephant numbers in the popular reserve. 

The elephants were relocated to Chizarira National Park “to decongest the elephant population which has gone beyond the carrying capacity of Hwange National Park,” Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation reported at the time. 

Added to the over-population, parts of Hwange have been gripped by a severe drought. In May 2016 Zimbabwe’s national wildlife authority said that it had plans to sell off some of its animals because of the drought that has badly affected great swathes of the southern African country.  

Unsurprisingly, elephants have a major impact on the environment. 

But as elephant biologist, Dr Keith Lindsay, states: “The bigger impact is on elephant behaviour.”

“Taking calves away from the midst of families would be very disruptive and I would not be surprised if the adult females from the affected families were very frightened and angry about people on foot or even in vehicles,” he says. “If captures occurred in communal areas, the disruption could increase the incidence of Human-Elephant Conflict and, if they were in the National Park, they could make it harder for tourist operators to get close to elephants.” 

Lindsay, however, says these are only the practical considerations. “The real issue is the inhumanity of stealing offspring from mothers. We know elephants grieve for companions, including calves, who have died and the effect must be similar in the case of kidnappings,” he says.

David Neale, Animal Welfare Director at Animals Asia, says information from within China suggests that both Shanghai Wild Animal Park and Yunnan Safari Park are preparing for the arrival of the latest batch of elephants with Shanghai getting 17 elephants, Yunnan 15 elephants. According to Neale, there are a dozen or so other possible zoos earmarked to receive the elephants. 

CITES permits the sale of live elephants only if “an export permit or re-export certificate issued by the Management Authority of the State of export” (in Zimbabwe’s case this is the NSPCA) and may be issued “only if the specimen was legally obtained and if the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.” The article goes on to state that: “In the case of a live animal or plant, it must be prepared and shipped to minimize any risk of injury, damage to health or cruel treatment.”

The senior inspector of Zimbabwe’s NSPCA, Glynis Vaughn, has already made a trip to China and has departed for second visit to sign-off on the condition of the new facilities. Given the acceptance of previous batches it is unlikely that the transportation will be prevented. Her findings will likely be kept out of the public eye as will the No-Detriment Finding (NDF) report.

Wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute, DJ Schubert, argues this “is one of the problems with the entire NDF process is there’s a fundamental lack of transparency in that very few countries make their NDFs easily accessible to the public.” 

Zimbabwe is one of them. Section 2 in the text for the Zimbabwean Freedom of Information Act says: “Citizens of Zimbabwe and anyone else have no rights to obtain information about the Government of Zimbabwe.”

The elephants in the capture facility near Hwange’s Main Camp are strictly off limits to both the public and researchers in the park and there are rumours that some may be moved to a remote location in Chizarira National Park to further conceal the actions surrounding their imminent transportation. 

Other concerned voices in Zimbabwe are worried about their own safety if they dare speak out against the authorities. The sentiment is that the capture is being driven from the Presidents Office and that anyone inside Zimbabwe cannot criticize the process without losing their livelihoods, if not their lives. “This is big money and a very vindictive group of people running this operation,” said one source. 

It is reported that a live elephant, depending on age and size, can sell between $40 000 and US $60 000, or between R540 000 and R809 000, per individual.

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