International and local private media have lately been awash with reports of Zimbabwe exporting “baby elephants” overseas and activists have been denouncing the development as an exercise in cruelty to the animals. But the stories have assumed a somewhat familiar streak, as well: the bigger picture now seems to be a deliberate ploy to deny Zimbabwe the exploitation of its natural resources in this case selling jumbos that are over-populated in the country. Our Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ) caught up with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s Director- General Edson Chidziya (EC) to get down to the bottom of the issue . . .
There has been a lot of hullabaloo in the past few months over the export of elephants by Zimbabwe. May you enlighten us why, how and where the elephants are sold?
The recent national census of elephants established that Zimbabwe has more than 80 000 elephants found in four major ranges of northwest Matabeleland, Sebungwe, Zambezi Valley and Gonarezhou. This figure is well above the recommended ecological carrying capacity of 45 000 elephants with northwest Matabeleland and Gonarezhou populations having excess animals. The estimated population of elephants in northwest Matabeleland, which incorporates Hwange National Park, is 53 949 animals and this is above the ecological carrying capacity of approximately 15 000 elephants.
This means that there is an excess of over 30 000 elephants that are being held in Hwange National Park and are available for relocation to areas within the country and export to other countries. This results in habitat degradation creating serious ecological, financial and socio-economic challenges to the elephant range areas.
On the other hand, elephants come into direct conflict with local communities in adjacent areas as they destroy vegetation, crops, and infrastructure and even kill people under various circumstances.
Zimbabwe is guided by appropriate management principles to enable the sustainable conservation of elephants in accordance with acceptable international standards. In order to deal with this problem of excess elephants there are few acceptable options available. Culling is one such management option to keep the population within the ecological carrying capacity and has not been implemented for quite some time in the face of excessive criticism from animal welfare groups.
However, Zimbabwe continues to incur huge costs at the local level in terms of artificial water supply, law enforcement and habitat degradation.
Zimbabwe as a responsible global citizen sensitive to the plight of the species continues to implement the various population management options such as live off-take. Although animal rights groups would obviously suggest that it is immoral to take the lives of animals, but it may be equally immoral to condemn animals to death by starvation having created the conditions which cause them to destroy their habitats.
Zimbabwe is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) since 1982 and is guided by provisions of CITES. The population of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) of Zimbabwe is included in Appendix II with an annotation that specifically allows for “trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations” based on conditions outlined in the convention. All exports from Zimbabwe fully complied with all the conditions and provisions of CITES as required.
There has been a particular focus on “baby” elephants which campaigners are saying are being ripped from their mothers can you enlighten us on the ages calves are ready for export and why in fact calves are preferred?
All ages of excess elephants are available for capture and relocation from the areas where they are locally over abundant. Targeting a particular age segment of a population for capture and translocation is important as a management approach, primarily for several reasons. The current management approach is to reduce the number of future breeding animals before they are recruited into the reproductive segment, arresting population growth.
The young sub-adult animals are a target for translocation as they easily adapt to new environments and are easier to handle due to their small size and better tolerance of humans than adult animals. All captured animals were about five years old and are generally able to fully fend for themselves.
But is Zimbabwe not being insensitive, sending calves to far away zoos?
Chimelong Safari Park in southern China’s Guangdong Province is the destination for the elephants qualified as a safe and acceptable destination after the rigorous due process mentioned before was followed. The Chinese CITES management and scientific authorities assured us that elephants will be kept in a free range setting and that none of the elephants will be used for performances in this safari park. The elephants were accompanied and closely monitored by Zimbabwe wildlife experts until they are well settled in China
Some activists have approached US courts to intervene and save sales of “baby” elephants. Does the US have jurisdiction in that matter?
There is nothing illegal about the sale of elephants to China as it is within the provisions of the CITES Convention. Furthermore, the US does not have jurisdiction over trade transaction involving two CITES parties that are trading legally. There is an annotation to the Appendix II listing of Zimbabwe’s African elephant population that specifically allows for “trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations”. Therefore, international trade in specimens of African elephants from Zimbabwe (including live animals) is allowed by the Convention.