Namibia’s wild elephants are being rounded up for international sale

The government hasn’t said where the elephants will go.

Namibia is in the process of capturing 57 wild elephants sold last year at auction, according to a statement today from the country’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism.

To the consternation of environmental groups and elephant advocates, Namibia had announced in December 2020 that it would auction off 170 of its elephants to reduce populations that were increasingly clashing with humans. It says it has an estimated 24,000 elephants.

Last August, the ministry published its first—and until today, only—public information on the matter. It said 57 elephants, which it had yet to round up from the wild, had been “successfully sold” to three bidders. Fifteen would remain in Namibia and 42 would be exported.

Thirty-seven elephants have already been captured, today’s statement says, including 22 for export. It said nothing about where the elephants will go, other than that it won’t be China.

The government of Namibia “can’t give [destination] details at this stage until the entire process is completed,” says Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism spokesperson Romeo Muyunda. “This is a clause in the sales agreement that we signed with the bidders.”

Selling wild elephants into captivity has long been controversial, both because there’s debate about whether such highly mobile, intelligent animals can live fulfilling lives in captivity and because breaking up herds damages relationships among close-knit family members.

“Elephants have basic needs for stimulating ecological and social environments and for the freedom to exercise choice over their foraging options and companions. These needs cannot be met under captive conditions,” says Michele Pickover, director of the South Africa-based EMS Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for vulnerable people and for animal welfare. “There is not an elephant overpopulation ‘problem’ in Namibia. In our view, this is all about profit.”

Namibia’s December 2020 auction notice said elephants would be sold by herd and wouldn't break up families. Calves are visible in drone footage of a farm where the 22 captured elephants slated for export are being held. Namibian journalist John Grobler took the video on February 12. He says he worries that more of the elephants may be pregnant and that the stress of captivity may trigger premature births.

“We captured elephant herds,” Muyunda says, and “it’s possible that some elephants were pregnant.” He confirmed that two calves were born after the elephants were taken from the wild and says “they are doing well.”

Grobler was charged with allegedly trespassing at the farm, which prompted the ministry to issue today’s statement to “clarify the current status of the auctions,” Muyunda says.

Grobler says he was standing on a public road when he sent a drone over the farm to monitor the elephants. The farm’s owner, G. H. Odendaal, declined to comment for this story.

It’s contentious whether Namibia is even permitted to export wild elephants to a foreign zoo or other buyer outside southern Africa.

The international wildlife treaty that regulates the export of wild African elephants, CITES, was amended in 2019 to bar elephants in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa from being exported to any country where the animals don’t or haven’t lived in the wild unless there’s a proven conservation benefit. That almost certainly rules out sales to zoos in, for example, China and the United States.

Dan Ashe, the president and CEO of the U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), said February 14 in an email that the association is unaware of any involvement by its members in the Namibian elephant auction. “We share concerns at the lack of transparency surrounding this initiative,” Ashe said. He added, however, that members are “under no obligation to inform AZA about potential animal imports.”

In October 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on whether any facilities in the U.S. had requested import permits for elephants from Namibia. National Geographic filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on October 4 for all potentially related permit applications but had not yet received those records. After this story published on February 15, the service’s FOIA office reached out to National Geographic to say it has no records of applications, eliminating U.S. zoos as one of the possible destinations for these elephants.

“Namibia’s authorities should listen to international elephant experts and cancel these disastrous exports before it’s too late,” says Mark Jones, the head of policy for the United Kingdom-based Born Free Foundation, a group that opposes taking any animals from the wild.

Namibia’s elephant exports will be discussed next month at a scheduled CITES meeting in Lyon, France.

Editor's note (2/16/22): This story was updated on February 16, 2022, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s response to National Geographic’s records request.
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 natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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