Zimbabwe's Reported Plan to Export Baby Elephants Raises Outcry Against Animal Trade

For elephants, being held captive in a circus or in zoos is a fate worse than death, says renowned expert Joyce Poole.

News that Zimbabwe has captured dozens of baby elephants from the wild and plans to export them overseas ignited a firestorm of alarm in conservation circles, raising new questions about the policies that govern the trade of live elephants.

Revelations of the capture came to ­­light late last month in a report by an activist group called Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.

The task force alleges that China has "ordered" a number of baby elephants and other wild animals from Zimbabwe. Johnny Rodrigues, an activist who leads the group, says that at least 36 elephants have been captured, along with 10 lions and 10 sable antelopes.

The elephants are allegedly between two-and-a-half and five years old, a highly vulnerable time in their lives, when separation from their mothers is known to be emotionally traumatic and physically dangerous.

In a Radio Dialogue interview and in a Telegraph article, Zimbabwe officials confirmed the capture of elephants but claimed that the elephants would be shipped to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), not China, adding confusion to an already mysterious situation.

Indeed, a story yesterday in the UAE's The National also claims that the country plans to import the elephants—although the report says they're not from the wild.

National Geographic requested comment about the Chinese export allegations from Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe's minister of environment, water, and climate. "We have not authorized any exports of elephants to China," he said.

(Requests for comment were also sent to E. Chidziya, director general of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks); Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe's minister of tourism; and Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a public relations official at ZimParks. None responded.)

Accusations about the export plan have bubbled up in a variety of forums over the past ten days, including from Daniel Stiles, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's group on elephants. On December 7, he reported that a zoo in Guangzhou, China, intends to import 50 elephants.

Last week, the Times of South Africa reported that as many as a hundred baby elephants have been requested for shipment to China.

David Coltart, Zimbabwe's former minister of education, sport, arts, and culture and now a senator with the Movement for Democratic Change, the party in opposition to President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF, is not surprised to hear that Zimbabwe is exporting elephants.

"[The] government is desperate for foreign exchange and revenue," he wrote in an email from Zimbabwe. "Furthermore, we have seen such rampant abuse of our wildlife in the last 14 years that this would be consistent with [what] the ZANU PF Government has done during this period ... There is very little 'wildlife management' left in Zimbabwe. Whilst there are dedicated individuals in national parks, wildlife has been plundered by a predatory regime."

Indeed, many wildlife experts say Zimbabwe's reported elephant exportation is just another symbol of corruption in the Mugabe regime.

But many also say the incident speaks to a broader problem: the toothlessness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international treaty that sets rules for the global trade in endangered wildlife.

The Pain of Capture

"The capture of elephants has been going on for centuries," says Joyce Poole, the co-founder of Kenya-based ElephantVoices, a research and advocacy organization. Poole has been studying the communication and emotional life of African elephants for nearly 40 years.

Poole expresses horror—and dread—over the prospects for Zimbabwe's baby elephants if they're indeed exported. "For elephants, being held captive for decades in a circus or in the majority of the world's zoos is gruesome. It's a fate worse than death."

She has spoken out against the capture of baby elephants since the late 1990s, when she went to court in South Africa as an expert witness in a case that involved the capture of 30 babies in Botswana and that drew worldwide attention.

In 1998, the Botswana Wildlife Department granted a company called African Game Services permission to capture the elephants for sale to foreign buyers.

The elephants were taken from their families in Botswana's Tuli Block game reserve and were shipped to a warehouse in South Africa to be trained for zoos, circuses, safari parks, or elephant-back safari ventures.

Poole was asked to review footage of the treatment of the elephants at the training facility. In an affidavit for the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), Poole said that she didn't see any elephants older than five.

She described both the capture and the confinement as "cruel" and wrote that "when the elephants were first brought to their holding area, they were trembling and screaming."

She also described seeing grief in the elephants' faces. "Those of us familiar with calves who have been orphaned or mothers who have lost their calves do recognize this very familiar expression."

In 2003, a court in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, convicted African Game Services animal trader Riccardo Ghiazza for the abuse. He was sentenced to six months in jail (with the sentence suspended for five years) and fined the equivalent of $7,000. (Ghiazza died in a car crash in 2007.)

The Tuli Block case was a landmark because it spurred the adoption of new norms and standards in South Africa. The most notable one, explains Ainsley Hay, of the NSPCA, is that it's now "illegal to remove elephants from the wild for captivity unless they are bona fide orphans needing rescuing."

But, Hay adds, "we believe the captive elephant industry is pushing hard to have these standards eased to allow capture from the wild."

Zimbabwe, by contrast, is virtually lawless, Rodrigues says. "Sure, we have a lot of laws and bylaws that pertain to wildlife. But we have a dictator—we've been under his rule for 30 years."

"Zim policies are old," he noted. Wildlife officials "don't listen to scientists, to reason, to people who study these animals. We should bring our laws on par with the world. And we do not."

Zimbabwe once had a stellar reputation for wildlife management, earned from the 1970s to the '90s, says Johan du Toit, a third-generation Zimbabwean and professor of ecology and conservation of large mammals at Utah State University, in Logan.

"The involvement of wildlife in rural development was pioneered in Zimbabwe, where communities were empowered to own their wildlife resources and have a say on how those resources are used," du Toit says.

According to du Toit, the problem today is corruption. "I don't think the way wildlife is being managed is indicative of the Zimbabwe ethos," he says, "but that the kleptocracy and the elitists within the government see the resources of the country as up for grabs—even to the extent that they think if they don't grab it, someone else will."

Sanctioned Trade in Live Elephants

Nations across the world legally trade in wild elephants. Under CITES, wild elephants can be traded for, among other things, zoos, "commercial" purposes, and "personal" reasons.

In the past two decades, 640 African elephants and 424 Asian elephants were reported to have been exported globally, according to a database kept by CITES.

CITES categorizes Zimbabwe's elephants under Appendix II, meaning they're not threatened with immediate extinction.

Some recent shipments on record in the CITES database include: in 2007, ten elephants exported from Zambia into China for zoo use; in 2009, ten elephants sent from the UAE to Jordan for "scientific" reasons; also in 2009, four elephants shipped from Tanzania to Pakistan for zoo use.

Zimbabwe reported to CITES that it sent eight elephants to China in 2012.

Chunmei Hu, who works at Nature University, an environmental group in Bejing, was with China Zoo Watch—a volunteer organization that seeks to improve the welfare of captive animals—when the young elephants arrived in China that year.

"I surveyed the situations of four [of the eight] African elephants imported from Zimbabwe [and sent to] the Taiyuan Zoo and Xinjiang Safari Park," Hu wrote in an email.

Disease, bad diet, and loneliness afflicted them, Hu noted. "Elephants imported from Africa live terrible lives in China."

Hu said there is "very little" information on the elephants but suspects that seven of the eight are dead.

Hu says Nature University has not received official word that China is about to receive numerous baby elephants from Zimbabwe. But if it does, the group will lodge a protest.

National Geographic asked Meng Xianlin, of the CITES Management Authority of China, about the reported Zimbabwean plan, but he didn't respond.

CITES: A Treaty Not a Police Force

In essence: CITES is the sum of its parts, and its successes and failures land on the shoulders of global, collective decision-making.

CITES resolutions don't replace national laws, but in signing on, 180 countries have promised that their own laws will eventually meet CITES minimum standards pertaining to trade in wild animals.

David Morgan, CITES's chief scientist in the secretariat office, in Geneva, wrote that Zimbabwe hadn't informed the office about a plan to export elephants.

"We have had no confirmation from the CITES authorities in Zimbabwe that they are transporting, or proposing to transport, live elephants to the United Arab Emirates." But, he added, such notification is not required under regulations.

Nations have a great deal of autonomy under CITES. For example, Zimbabwe's own management authority determines whether an export permit will be issued. It also decides whether or not the animals are going to "appropriate and acceptable destinations," as CITES puts it. (National Geographic questioned the CITES Management Authority of Zimbabwe, but no response was offered.)

To some conservationists, this looks like the fox guarding the henhouse, ElephantVoices' Poole said, "especially if people making decisions are on the receiving end of cash."

Because Zimbabwe's elephants are listed under Appendix II, there's no requirement for the importing country to issue an import permit unless one is required by national law.

CITES does stipulate that when Appendix II species are transported, they should "be prepared and shipped to minimize any risk of injury, damage to health or cruel treatment."

But CITES isn't a policing organization and has no mechanism to ensure that vulnerable animals-like baby elephants-being taken thousands of miles across the globe don't suffer injury, damage to health, or cruel treatment.

"We don't go and check up on any shipment[s]," Morgan explained. "Of course the importing country has an eye on this, and they see the specimens when [they] arrive and occasionally have circumstances when animals are not shipped in a satisfactory way. But that is quite rare in recent years."

Will Travers, president of Born Free, a U.K.-based organization that advocates for animal welfare and the protection of species in the wild, faults CITES for lacking the means to provide robust oversight of the global live animal trade.

"If one could have your one wish," Travers says, "it would be that there is a different approach to live trade under CITES."

He suggested that an independent evaluation system be put in place to oversee key aspects of the trade: the capture and holding of the animals, the shipment of the animals, and the facilities that they'll end up in. On this last point, he says, all CITES now requires is that the destination be "appropriate and acceptable"—language Travers called "blunt" and "subjective."

And, he says, "there needs to be an independent review of ​why the animals are being shipped to begin with."

Pauline Verheij, an environmental lawyer and the founder of EcoJust, which advises conservation organizations on legal matters, criticizes the CITES treaty in the context of the alleged Zimbabwe export for omitting any reference to ethical considerations.

"You can have a really dry legal standpoint on this trade in baby elephants captured from the wild," Verheij says. "But the question is more than that. The question is: Is this trade actually ethical?"

Scheme Revealed by Holiday Travelers

The Asia for Animals Coalition—a coalition of animal protection groups—is preparing to send high officials in China, the UAE (and Emirates Airline), and Zimbabwe, separate letters protesting the reported export of Zimbabwe's baby elephants, lions, and sable antelopes. The letters have been signed by various combinations of 189 organizations around the world.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force's Rodrigues says he was tipped off about the reported export scheme by tourists and local Zimbabweans on holiday in Hwange National Park. He said the group saw a helicopter and heard shots being fired that separated mother elephants from their calves.

"The babies can't keep up," Rodrigues says, "and then they're captured."

Rodrigues dispatched an investigator to the scene, who "witnessed the baby elephants and interviewed people in the area and managed to get all the information we needed."

The investigator was told that the animals would be taken by truck to Mozambique and then put on a livestock sea freighter bound for China.

The elephants are reportedly being held in a capture unit outside Hwange's main camp. (Related: "The Fate of the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe.")

According to Rodrigues, one of the babies has died in its enclosure, and its meat "was shared by the people who captured it."

Rodrigues says that another young elephant was seized from the park to replace the one that died.

Follow Christina Russo on Twitter.

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