Yesterday at the 18th triennial meeting of an international wildlife trade treaty, countries approved a proposal that limits the export of wild African elephants. It says that elephants from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa can only be exported to African countries where elephants live or used to live. There’s one exception: Export may be allowed if a country can prove that there’s a real conservation benefit to sending an elephant elsewhere.
The proposal proved to be one of the most contentious topics of the entire two-week meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), in which 182 countries and the European Union gathered to discuss trade regulations. (Learn more: Read about other big decisions from the conference.)
Animal welfare groups and many conservation organizations lauded the decision, although some southern African countries objected vehemently, and the U.S. and a European zoo association expressed reservations.
“It’s a huge victory for animal welfare that the abduction of baby elephants from their families to be held in zoos has been banned,” says Frank Pope, CEO of the Nairobi-based nonprofit Save the Elephants. Many other animal welfare and conservation organizations echoed these sentiments.
The capture and sale of live elephants has come under increasing criticism as scientists have learned more about the complexities of elephant behavior and intellect. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick or dying behind. They’re smart, social creatures with family bonds that last a lifetime. And in recent years, evidence has stacked up that they use tools, work together to achieve common goals, mourn their dead, and are capable of empathy. During certain times of the year African savanna elephants are highly gregarious, with hundreds gathering together.
Taken together, those facts make it particularly troubling to many scientists and animal welfare groups when elephants, often young ones, are separated from their families in the wild to be sold to zoos.
“Like us, elephants feel joy when reunited with family and grief when brutally separated. Like us, they need friends and space to thrive. The physical and psychological harm caused to individual elephants by their traumatic capture and their impoverished lives in captivity is well-documented,” says Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior expert and National Geographic Explorer. Young elephants are particularly vulnerable. Family separation can cause psychological trauma, resulting in conditions that include depression, anxiety, aggression, and, sometimes, premature death.
A few southern African countries—notably Zimbabwe, which has an estimated 82,000 elephants, and Botswana, with some 130,000—say they’re increasingly faced with two problems that require such sales: keeping these wild animals away from humans and their lands, where they can destroy crops and kill people, and offsetting the costs of conservation by profiting from the nations’ wildlife.
A solution, those countries argue, is to sell elephants to zoos around the world. Zimbabwe, for example, has made a recent habit of selling calves to China, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) shipped 17 of its elephants to U.S. zoos in 2016, saying they would have been culled otherwise.
The shipment of mostly young wild elephants from Africa is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the mid-1990s, calves typically were captured only as a by-product of adult culling operations, according to documents submitted to CITES.
Chinese zoos, for example, have imported more than a hundred young elephants from Zimbabwe since 2012, according to Humane Society International. The imports have drawn international condemnation from that group and other animal welfare advocates. Zimbabwe officials say their country should be allowed to manage its wildlife as it likes.
Yesterday during debate, the EU suggested that the proposal be amended to allow the export of elephants beyond range states in “exceptional circumstances.” That would require demonstrating that the transfer of those elephants provides conservation benefits to the species. Elephant expert groups at CITES and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which sets the conservation status of species, would need to be convinced of the benefits for approval to be granted.
The United States voted against the amended proposal. A spokeswoman for the U.S. delegation to CITES, Barbara Wainman, told National Geographic that the U.S. rejects any limitations on where elephants can be sent that are based on geography, rather than “on suitability of a facility being equipped to house and care for elephants.”
Wainman said that the U.S. stance is that a different provision of the treaty adequately lays out the science-based approach for decisions about where to send elephants. She said that further provisions aren’t needed to define what destinations are “appropriate and acceptable.”
Meanwhile, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) said in a statement, “EAZA welcomes the practical outcome of the vote, which will prevent the import of wild caught elephants to inappropriate destinations.” But EAZA expressed concern that the new restrictions could undermine the CITES regulatory framework by treating elephants that are in a category with less stringent protections from international trade (such as those in Botswana and Zimbabwe) as essentially equivalent to elephants that have been given the highest level of protection.
It’s unclear whether this decision will have any impact on U.S. zoos’ ability to import elephants. Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits 236 facilities in the U.S., says that having elephants in zoos supports the animals’ conservation beyond the funds that zoos contribute for their conservation in the wild. “Does it benefit elephants to have a public aware of what is happening?” he says. “It’s absolutely essential to conservation of wildlife that people…have an emotional connection and feel empathy for animals.” Seeing them in well managed zoos creates that connection and understanding of their status in the wild, Ashe says.
Elephants are a draw for the zoo-going public, but the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group has long expressed concern about “the poor breeding success and low life expectancy of captive African elephants.” Zoos, therefore, sometimes look abroad to add elephants to their facilities.
“Merely sending a wild elephant to a zoo doesn't meet this requirement” of having a conservation benefit, notes Colman Criodain, a wildlife practice policy manager at the World Wildlife Fund. The IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group also holds this view. The key, Criodain says, will be how zoos demonstrate the benefit.
The IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group also says it doesn’t believe there’s any conservation benefit for wild elephants taken into captivity and “does not endorse the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use.” This seems to imply that the IUCN will set a high standard for what constitutes “exceptional circumstances.”
Mark Jones, the head of policy for the United Kingdom-based Born Free Foundation, a group that opposes taking any animals from the wild, says of yesterday’s vote, “This outcome may not be perfect and watertight, but it is an outcome that sets a strong precedent and takes us much further down the road toward permanently ending the taking of elephants from the wild for captive facilities.”
Moreover, he says, it’s concerning that the new determination applies only to elephants that don’t have the most stringent CITES trade protections. Countries with elephant populations at particular risk of extinction, such as Eswatini, which shipped 17 elephants to three U.S. zoos in 2016, wouldn’t be covered and potentially could still make a case to export elephants.
When introducing the amended proposal, the European Union said that it hasn’t imported any live elephants during the past decade and has no intention of doing so in future. During the debate, China didn’t indicate its future intentions. Neither did the United States.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.