Zimbabwe’s captured wild elephant calves are to be flown to China this week. Speaking in an interview with The Telegraph a few days ago, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, Saviour Kasukuwere, twenty-seven of the most ‘habituated’ or, in his words “tamed”, elephants will be sent to the Chimelong Safari Park, a vast Chinese corporate leisure centre in the southern city of Guangzhou.
The 300-acre Chimelong Park is notorious for the poor living and circus-like conditions for its 20,000 exotic animals.
Zimbabwe’s much-publicised export of wild-caught elephant calves to China in 2012 resulted in the deaths of two of the four calves.
Elephant calves and other wildlife were captured and placed in top-secret enclosures in Zimbabwe’s premier game park, Hwange. It estimated that around 80 elephant calves have been captured so far and are living under constant duress in cramped prison-like conditions.
The elephant calves ranging from two to four years old – a time when they are heavily reliant on their mothers — are snatched from their families in the wild. To capture the calves, helicopters buzzed above the herds and shotguns fired to cause a stampede. Baby elephants that could not keep up were then rounded up and transported to the holding facility.
Photos published in National Geographic in March, showed the elephants stressed and in poor health. According to renowned elephant behavioural expert, Joyce Poole, who studied the photographs, the elephant calves’ haggard condition are common among wild elephants that have been orphaned.
Kasukuwere told The Telegraph that since the US ban on hunting elephants “few people come to see our elephants in Zimbabwe, so it makes commercial sense to send our wildlife there.”
Jane High, a concerned Zimbabwean citizen who has been monitoring the events in detail, recently spoke to a member of the diplomatic community in Zimbabwe who told her that she had been trying for months to set up a meeting with Kasukuwere to ask for information regarding the captured animals as she was “receiving a barrage of criticism from her own country demanding what she was doing about it.” So far she has had no response from the minister.
Zimbabwe’s actions have been widely denounced. The David Sheldrick Wildfe Trust, the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world a, says the move is bothillogical and unethical.
Zimbabwe’s animal welfare organisations, Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) – Mutare and Bulawayo Branches – have jointly issued public statements condemning the capture of wild elephants from Hwange. The welfare groups point out that while Zimbabwe may be within the terms of CITES regulations per se, they are in fact breaking their own national law.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (3-19:09) specifically makes it illegal for any person or organization to “wantonly or unreasonably do, or cause, or procure the commission any act which causes any unnecessary suffering to any animal; or wantonly or unreasonably do, or cause, or procure the commission of any act likely to infuriate or terrify any animal.”
The act also gives authority to animal welfare inspectors to access, in all cases where they either suspect or receive notice from the public that an animal may be in distress. To date no access has been granted mainly because the Animal Cruelty Act is currently administered by Kasukuwere’s department meaning only his ministry can grant permission to investigate their own indiscretions. As High says it’ like “the fox guarding the chickens while the vixen is in the coop.”
Johnny Rodrigues, director of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), who first exposed the plight of the elephants, says the situation is disturbing.
“It’s appalling that it’s been kept such a secret,” he told National Geographic. “The government must know that they’re doing wrong.”
By breaking their own law Zimbabwe may have inadvertently contravened the CITES regulation of trade, which states that animals cannot be obtained or traded internationally if they are in contravention of the laws of that state. This means the CITES should not have granted Zimbabwe export permits for the elephants.
Friends of Animals and ZCTF have petitioned the U.S. in a Washington D.C. court to obtain a policy statement by the United States condemning Zimbabwe’s impending export as well as seeking judicial intervention from the Obama administration to put pressure on the Zimbabwe government to reconsider.
Hollywood actress Pamela Anderson and former James Bond actor and animal rights campaigner, Pierce Brosnan, have called on fans to protest the planned export. “We need your help and voices to protect these babies and to stop this shipment of wildlife cargo,” he wrote, and added: “Please contact the Zimbabwe Minister of the Environment, Saviour Kasukuwere and ask that he release these majestic endangered animals at once.”
Elephants DC, the organization dedicated to combating the ivory trade and who employed the US Security firm to photograph the caged elephants undercover, have met with officials in the U.S. State Department and the USFWS, as well as with diplomats at the Zimbabwe Embassy, in Washington, D.C., to advocate for the baby elephants’ release.
The CITES export permits are to expire at the end of this month. According to sources, special cages for transporting the elephants have been moved to the entrance of the enclosure in Hwange. The twenty-seven elephants, it is believed, will be loaded on a plane bound for China on Thursday.
The capture of these baby elephants provides yet more justification for the USFWS ban on the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and it is quite likely that this ban will be further extended as international awareness and condemnation of Zimbabwe’s actions spreads. Zimbabwe will quite possibly not only have to face a continuation of the ban but will have to witness the already dwindling numbers of wildlife tourists to a country once famed for its elephants dry up.