Thirty-five young elephants are to be flown from Zimbabwe to zoos in China after being forcibly separated from their mothers in an operation “designed to disorientate, exhaust and subdue” them.
The animals, some as young as two, are being held in pens in Hwange National Park while travel crates are prepared and documents finalised for the 7,000-mile journey.
During the Mugabe era, Zimbabwe’s wildlife was regularly sold to Asia and the Middle East to settle debts. A source close to the operation described how rangers flew helicopters at family groups to isolate the young who were darted and loaded on to trucks.
“It can take several attempts to successfully part the young from their mothers, who are extremely protective,” he told The Times.
“The helicopter has to fly very close in order to create the panic that leaves the young elephants exhausted, disorientated and isolated from the rest of the herd. While the juvenile is being loaded, the helicopter buzzes around the herd to stop the animals from attempting to defend their young.”
A vet from Zimbabwe’s wildlife agency has certified all the young fit enough for the long, stressful journey, which will begin in the coming days with an 80-mile trip by road to the airport at Victoria Falls and on to cargo planes.
The bankrupt country’s fuel crisis hampered the operation and it took months for officials from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, known as ZimParks, to complete the order from China.
A spokesman for ZimParks declined to confirm that elephants had been captured for live export but said: “We never export baby elephants, only sub-adults of four or five years old.”
Conservationists say calves can be entirely dependent on their mothers for emotional and physical support until they are five; others can still be taking their mother’s milk until they are ten or another sibling is born.
Hwange National Park was the site of the killing of Cecil the lion in 2015 by an American trophy hunter. News of the imminent export comes two years after 31 calves were flown to China, creating an international outcry.
Such incidents have tarnished Zimbabwe’s reputation as a tourist detination despite its many spectacular wildlife attractions. The country is now increasingly reliant on its Chinese allies as it is threatened with a return to pariah status amid reports of human rights abuses during recent protests.
Since 2012 about 100 elephant calves have been sold to Chinese zoos and safari parks, some of which offer elephants performing stunts in circus shows. Such deals require permits, under the multilateral Cites treaty that governs the wildlife trade.
The unknown fate of the 35 elephants underlined the lack of oversight over such deals.
Dan Bucknell, executive director of Tusk, the UK elephant charity, said: “People imagine that in this day and age zoos are being restocked from captive breeding, or from zoo-to-zoo transfers, not by animals being taken from the wild. Yet this sort of trade is perfectly legal under Cites.”
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