China is reportedly importing more than 30 wild-caught elephant calves from Zimbabwe following its decision to ban the sale of ivory.
According to a Zimbabwean government official who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, 31 wild elephants recently captured in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe have been air-freighted abroad.
The shipment was confirmed by the Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force.
The official said the elephants are between the ages of 3 and 6, adding that two of them were particularly fragile.
“One female calf is struggling to stand and has open sores on her body. She has been weak since she was captured.
"Another elephant, noticeably small, is quiet and reserved. When approached by other elephants, she moves away. She is suffering from trauma and is possibly being bullied,” the official said.
The elephants were captured from Hwange on August 8 and footage of the operation was secretly released to reporters.
The Guardian published the explosive video footage, which showed captors repeatedly kicking a five-year-old female elephant in the head.
According to photos sent to reporters from Zimbabwe, Ethiopian Airlines shipped the animals on Friday.
Zimbabwe has sent at least three known shipments of wild captured elephants to China since 2012. Last year, one of the elephants died during transport.
According to Chunmei Hu, an advocate for the Freedom for the Animal Actors organization, two zoos - Chongqing Safari Park and Daqingshan Safari Park - are awaiting elephants, based on Chinese media reports.
International trade in live elephants is legal, however, it is increasingly being debated at the highest level.
At a recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Geneva, representatives from the African Elephant Coalition – a group of 29 African nations that represent 70 percent of the elephants’ range – raised serious concerns on the trade.
Ali Abagana, speaking for the delegation of Niger, told the conference that their country was “concerned about the plight of African elephants, including juvenile animals, captured and sent to captive facilities outside of the species’ range”.
The CITES Secretariat consequently tasked a working group of nations and NGOs to debate the parameters of the live trade in elephants, which exists against a backdrop of poaching that has seen a third of Africa’s elephants wiped out in the past decade.
The working group is being chaired by the United States and includes among others Ethiopia, Kenya, China, hunting lobby group Safari Club International (SCI), animal welfare organizations including Humane Society International (HSI), World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), and American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Peter Stroud, the former curator of the Melbourne Zoo from 1998-2003 who was involved in sourcing elephants from Thailand, calls moving wild-caught animals to zoos “unconscionable.”
“There is now abundant evidence that elephants do not and cannot thrive in zoos,” Stroud says.
“Young elephants will never develop naturally as socially and ecologically functioning beings in zoos. They will face a very long and very slow process of a mental and physiological breakdown resulting inevitably in chronic physical and mental abnormality, disease and premature death.”
Ed Lanca, Chairman of the Zimbabwean NSPCA, echoed Stroud’s views.
“There is no sound basis for the removal of wild caught baby elephants to facilities that are ill-equipped nor prepared to provide adequate long-term care for these animals.
"At all times, the welfare of these animals must remain paramount,” Lanca said.
Lanca argued that Chinese tourists should instead be encouraged to visit Zimbabwe and “experience these majestic animals in their natural environment.
“Zimbabwean animals belong to the nation and must be protected. Wildlife remains our heritage.”
The Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) documented the transport on its Facebook page, along with photos of the trucks and crates the elephants were shipped in.
At the end of its post, ZCTF wrote: “We would like to thank everyone who tried to assist in stopping this terrible event from taking place but unfortunately, we have failed yet again.”
The capture of wild elephants for permanent captivity is illegal in South Africa.
CITES officials in Zimbabwe were asked to comment on the export. There was no response at the time of this writing.
Visit the Conservation Action Trust site for more details on animal conservation efforts.