A Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) helicopter that crash landed at the heart of the Hwange National Park, injuring the crew last week was scouting for baby elephants for export to China, it has been revealed.
Veteran conservationist, Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), first blew the whistle on Zimparks’ mission, which was confirmed by Environment, Water and Climate minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri.
Rodrigues, a strident campaigner against the translocation of Zimbabwean baby elephants to Chinese zoos, said the removal of the giant mammals from their families was cruel.
“They have captured about 18 little elephants to be transported to China in a few days’ time but in total, they are capturing 80 baby elephants for China,” he said after news of the helicopter accident broke on Monday.
“The helicopter crashed during the capture. As conservationists, we frown at such kind of acts as it is inhumane treatment of animals because they are being sent to scary places for the benefit of chefs that pocket the money.”
The conservationist said animal rights protection groups such as the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA) should intervene.
“ZNSPCA are scared to charge Zimparks for this inhuman treatment of the animals,” he said.
“This country is a scary place for animals as many chefs are working with the Chinese at the expense of the local people. Surely money talks and the guilty walk [free].”
Rodrigues said the baby elephants were being kept at Mizibi Camp awaiting flights to China.
He claimed the money realised from the sale of the baby elephants was not benefitting locals or conservation efforts.
However, the claims were rubbished by Muchinguri, who accused Rodrigues of exaggerating issues to attract donor funds.
“I don’t think even your newspaper can really take Rodrigues seriously because he is a poor man who is trying to raise money by peddling lies,” Muchinguri told The Standard in Victoria Falls.
“He just cooks up things and I feel he suffers from hallucinations because when you look at facts, they tell a different story.
“He is very fond of criticising me but at least I am working while he gets his money from lying.”
Muchinguri-Kashiri said the exports of baby elephants to China were above board.
“We were given permission by Cabinet to sell some of the animals rather than culling or leaving them to die naturally,” she added.
“There was a feeling that we could perhaps sell these animals and we managed to sell some few elephants and we still have some outstanding ones.
“We are still trying to identify those which we can capture and those that remained during that time as some of them were very thin and we could not send them out. So in the exercise of doing that, this is where the helicopter crashed.”
The minister also confirmed that some baby elephants had already been captured, but said she did not have details about progress made so far.
“Yes we are [capturing the elephants], but I don’t have information as yet,” she said.
“There is a possibility that obviously they had captured a few which they put under quarantine and then from there they will export them.
“This is something that was agreed, that China is a friendly destination and that they should be used for educational purposes.”
The government says it is selling wild animals to fund conservation activities at the country’s game reserves.