Chinese crews in a Zimbabwe park are reportedly preparing young elephants and lions captured there for transport to China, triggering alarm among activists who fear that the animals are doomed to a life of suffering.
Sources close to the scene have claimed that the facility in Hwange National Park, where elephants have been confined since late last year, has been turned over to the Chinese.
According to Sharon Hoole, a Zimbabwe-born, UK-based animal activist who has been closely following—and protesting—the planned export of the Hwange elephants, “We were pushing and asking [our sources] for photos, specifically of the hydraulic equipment and the trucks and forklifts [brought to the park], and we weren't getting feedback from our contacts.”
She says she found out on June 18 that most of the Zimbabwean staff at the facility have been replaced by Chinese workers and veterinarians.
Hoole was also told that the Chinese are “rehearsing” loading elephants into their transportation crates with bull hooks.
Given what is now known about the high intelligence of elephants and the importance of their social bonds, ripping them from their herds and sending them across the globe to be kept in prison-like conditions is deeply troubling to those who know them intimately.
“For elephants, being held captive for decades in a circus or in the majority of the world's zoos is gruesome, a fate worse than death," Joyce Poole, the cofounder of Kenya-based ElephantVoices, a research and advocacy organization, told National Geographic.
Claims about the planned wildlife export are almost impossible to verify, but news reports and information pieced together from conservation groups, veterinarians, citizens, and animal advocates suggest that some elephants are now on the verge of being flown to China, where they may end up in a safari park.
This murky saga began last November, when a local wildlife organization, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), sent out an alert that 34 elephants, 7 lions, and 10 sable antelopes had been captured in Hwange and would be sent to China.
But in December, Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, told National Geographic in an email “We have not authorized any exports of elephants to China.”
In January 2015, the Guardian reported that Zimbabwe officials said the elephants, in fact,would be sent to China and France.
In an email in February to National Geographic, Meng Xianlin, of the CITES management authority in China, denied that the elephants would be imported into his country.
The French CITES authority also told National Geographic that France had no plan to import the elephants.
In March, in an interview with National Geographic, Kasukuwere said that the Hwange calves would be relocated within Zimbabwe. But he also said that Zimbabwe authorities were looking for buyers and that if they received an “order,” they would export elephants accordingly.
Kasukuwere also said that after five years, the elephants would return to “the forests of Zimbabwe.”
Ainsley Hay, with the National Council of SPCAs, in South Africa, says that “almost all training of wild-caught elephants involves breaking them using horrific abuse, including beating, chaining, stretching, food deprivation, and social deprivation.
“As these animals are destined for countries that have poorly controlled animal-welfare standards,” Hay says, “it’s safe to assume these calves will [have been] trained in this manner.”
Following the story in the Telegraph, National Geographic contacted minister Kasukuwere; Walter Mzembi, the minister of tourism; Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a public relations official at ZimParks; and Meng Xialin to substantiate rumors as to the number of elephants, their destination, and the timing and manner of their export. No responses were received prior to publication.
How the elephants and lions will leave the country is unclear.
One possibility is that they’ll be trucked to the airport in nearby Victoria Falls, or perhaps the one in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo.
Or they could be flown directly out of Hwange.
“The Hwange Game reserve airport is functioning,” wrote David Coltart, senator with Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. “It is in fact a long runway constructed with help from the U.S. a long time ago as one of its strategic long range bases. It could literally take a B52 bomber—it could easily take cargo aircraft.“
Hoole says she has sources posted at all these locations, waiting round-the-clock to document the departure.
Any time elephants are transported by air, there are great risks, says Richard Ruggiero, Africa branch chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The challenges are: loading and unloading, the level of tranquilizers that keep them calm (they are stressed as hell during the operation), keeping them cool until you reach altitude, keeping their breathe-way open (trunk), and of course, they cannot move around and shift the center of gravity during flight, particularly take-off and landing.”
Veterinarians and animal welfare groups in Zimbabwe say they’ve made numerous attempts to stop the export and have expressed their concerns to officials.
Melanie Hood is the animal welfare director with Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ). She says that since December 2014, her group—in conjunction with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Zimbabwe—has sent several letters to the director general of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority requesting a meeting about the young elephants. But “no reply has been received.”
Hood also says that groups have requested permission to inspect the elephants, “together with people who we deem to be 'elephant experts'—but again no official confirmation or reaction to our request has been received. We continue to try.”
Besides the Telegraph report, indications that the elephants may indeed be destined for Chimelong Safari Park can be found in an article published in April in Qingyuan Daily News.
The report refers to the first phase of construction of the Qingyuan ZhangLong animal quarantine station having been completed and mentions plans to “import African elephant in July 2015.”
Qingyuan is a prefecture-level city in Guangdong province, where Chimelong, billed as “the largest safari park housing the most species in the world,” is located.
David Neale, of Animals Asia, a Hong-Kong based welfare organization that focuses on captive animal issues, among other causes, notes that “many animals, including elephants, are forced to perform demeaning and degrading tricks. They are forced to do so under pressure from handlers with handheld jab sticks. The circus performances are likely to cause many animals at Chimelong Safari Park a degree of suffering.”
Hu says the enclosures there are “so small” and that the elephants will have to perform. “I think it has terrible animal welfare.” She says she’ll monitor the elephants if and when they arrive.”
In Zimbabwe, Jane High, one of the core group campaigning against the China export, wrote that she’s been “working with anybody and everybody trying to raise the profile of the disaster happening to our wild life. We’ve been through a lot here, but nothing has come so close to destroying my soul as this wildlife trade.”
Follow Christina Russo on Twitter.