The 51-year-old wife of the Zimbabwean leader is believed to have sent 35 elephant calves, eight lions, a dozen hyenas and a giraffe to settle a debt for boots and uniforms bought for the Congolese military, a conservationist with intimate knowledge of the deal told The Times.
Mr Mugabe, 92, has had close ties with President Kabila of the DRC, 45, and his late father, Laurent, since 1997, when Zimbabwe sent troops there to help to squash a rebellion supported by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
There are fears that the elephants could be used to start an ivory-farming operation in China. They were captured at the Hwange National Park and flown out of the country in a Russian-registered Boeing 747 belonging to AirBridge Cargo. The plane stopped in Moscow en route to Shanghai and the animals were finally released at the Chimelong safari park in Guangzhou.
Zimbabwean wildlife officials have defended the capture of the elephants, saying that it would ease pressure on the “overburdened” parks and reduce conflict with local communities. But a wildlife expert in Zimbabwe said that the forced separation of the young elephants from their herds was “a mad act of cruelty”.
Nick Lynch, who has been monitoring the transaction since 2014, said that the deal involved “rogue elements” within the Chinese expat community — and that the Chinese government was taking covert steps to eradicate the illegal wildlife trade.
“The Chinese expat community in Zimbabwe must now be carefully scrutinised as well and all those found to be acting illegally or in a manner that threatens China’s best interests in Africa should be dealt with accordingly,” he added.
The two main opposition groups in Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change, headed by Morgan Tsvangirai, and the Zimbabwe People First Party, led by Joice Mujuru, the former deputy president, have criticised the “translocation of our elephants to strange environments”.
Mr Mugabe is on a multimillion-pound, month-long holiday in Singapore with his family and entourage — despite a national cash crisis that has resulted in civil servants not being paid their salaries this month.
The Mugabes usually go shopping in Singapore while the president has a medical check-up. On previous trips there he has had his prostate examined, owing to cancer concerns. Mrs Mugabe has made no secret of her intention to succeed her husband. The family is due back in Harare at the end of January.