They were among a group of 36 calves taken from their herds in Zimbabwe’s flagship Hwange National Park and held at a holding facility since August.
Conservationists from across the world have staunchly opposed the capture and sale of the calves to zoos and safari parks in China, which have poor animal welfare records.
Johnny Rodrigues, director of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said he was “gutted” after learning that the elephants were leaving Zimbabwe.
“Three of four baby Hwange elephants shipped to a Chinese zoo and a safari park in 2012 are no longer alive, and the fourth is suffering from depression and ill-health.”
Rodrigues said he fears the latest shipment will form part of a mass sale of elephants and lions caught in Zimbabwe reserves to Chinese enterprises, including circuses.
“Our government is robbing us and our future generations, and China is plundering Africa’s heritage.
“Elephant poaching across Africa for ivory is out of control, with more than 25000 elephants slaughtered every year.
“The government must be held accountable. The facilities in China have shocking histories of animal abuse, and poor animal husbandry and veterinary care.”
The loading for transport was under tight security enforced by military and national intelligence officials, out of sight of the public, at about 7am yesterday.
The Zimbabwean government, which is in huge debt to China and unable to pay Zimbabwe National Parks employees, has brushed aside criticism, saying that the animals must pay for themselves.