Baby elephants are being snatched from the wild in Africa and airlifted to one of the world’s biggest zoos in China, a Mail on Sunday investigation has found.
And they will be followed by tigers, cheetahs, giraffes and other exotic animals as Zimbabwe cashes in on its wildlife.
The elephants – price tag £25,000 each – are separated from their mothers in Zimbabwe and flown by cargo plane to a theme park being built in the smog of China’s industrialised Guangdong province.
Once in China, the traumatised animals – some bearing bloody wounds suffered in fights during captivity – are kept in cramped pens and allowed into a dusty enclosure to exercise for just two hours a day.
The elephants already in China were flown there in July.
There could be as many as nine more airlifts as Zimbabwe plans to sell 200 calves to the park in a deal worth £5 million, according to Africa-based wildlife campaigners.
The Mail on Sunday last week slipped past security checkpoints to see the bleak conditions the elephants are being held in at the Chimelong zoo complex in Yinzhan village, Qingyuan.
Young elephants shuffled around an oval enclosure marshalled by keepers armed with sticks and surrounded by high electric fences as noisy construction work went on around them.
Concrete pens were being built nearby to take tigers, cheetahs, giraffes and other exotic animals before the £3 billion park’s opening in 2017.
Minutes after we got inside, security guards on motorbikes ordered us to leave.
The elephants seen by The Mail on Sunday last week were trapped to order as babies in November 2014 and held in Zimbabwe over the next eight months.
They were flown direct to Guangdong from Zimbabwe on board a cargo plane.
The airlift is believed to have been masterminded by a powerful Chinese businesswoman who lives in Zimbabwe and is close to president Robert Mugabe’s corrupt regime.
Concrete pens were being built nearby to take tigers, cheetahs, giraffes and other exotic animals before the £3 billion park’s opening in 2017
Zimbabwe’s environment minister Opa Muchinguri visited the park in China on New Year’s Eve and said her country was preparing to sell China more of its 85,000 elephants
Beijing wildlife campaigner Hu Chunmei saw the elephants shortly after they arrived in Yinzhan and said: ‘The conditions they are kept in are terrible.
‘Three or four elephants are kept in pens of less than ten square metres, and they are only released for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.
‘These elephants are only two to four years old and should be with their mothers. Because they are young, they fight and injure each other. Their untreated wounds were visible.’
Andrea Crosta, head of the Elephant Action League, said: ‘Zoos don’t capture baby elephants and send them across the planet any more. But we are talking about two countries with a completely different set of values.’
Zimbabwe’s environment minister Opa Muchinguri visited the park in China on New Year’s Eve and said her country was preparing to sell China more of its 85,000 elephants.
She said: ‘Our ecosystem cannot handle such a large number of animals. So we would rather export and sell more elephants and other animals to those willing to take care of them.
‘The elephants are living very healthy lives there.’
Chimelong failed to respond to requests for comment.