Four young elephants are being transported by air from Zimbabwe to China, eight months after their capture in the north-west of the country sparked outrage from animal rights advocates including Hollywood actor Pierce Brosnan.
The youngsters, all around five years old, were part of a 27-strong group of elephants captured last year in Hwange National Park. They are being sent to Chimelong Safari Park, a vast Chinese corporate leisure centre in the southern city of Guangzhou.
The elephants were sold for about £25,000 each according to estimates from Zimbabwe’s wildlife authority.
Environment minister Saviour Kasukawere confirmed the animals were being transported. He said Zimbabwe was selling the youngsters to raise money to fight poaching.
Rowan Martin, Zimbabwe’s best-known elephant expert and veteran ecologist, was hired to write a comprehensive document on transporting elephants from the wild to a life in captivity.
“After six months or so these youngsters will be tamed to an extent. So the journey will be less traumatic. It would take another two years or so to domesticate them,” he said.
He said Zimbabwe has been exporting elephants for many years and that as far as he can ascertain, the youngsters’ new home, was “massive” compared to zoos in Europe or the United States.
“The biggest challenge for these and any elephants in captivity is enrichment. They must not be allowed to get bored. They will need stimulation.”
The 300-acre Chimelong Safari Park has around 20,000 animals including the largest population of koalas outside Australia.
It has however been condemned for allegedly housing its animals in poor conditions and treating them badly by conservation groups including Animals Asia.
No animal welfare group or person, including Mr Martin, saw the elephants after they were captured and the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority ignored a request from the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ZNSPCA, to inspect them.
In December, Mr Brosnan called on fans to protest the planned export of elephants, saying he was “deeply saddened” by the news. At the time it was understood that 36 elephants could be shipped to China and the UAE.
Mr Kasukawere said Zimbabwe’s national parks authority was short of cash to fight poaching, particularly since last year when the US banned hunters from returning home with trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
“We have to raise money wherever we can. I hope concerned Zimbabweans and international animal welfare activists will go and check on the Zimbabwe elephants in China,” he said.
Before embarking on the initial nine-hour flight to Dubai, before transferring to China, the youngsters had to endure a ten-hour road journey from the capture unit in the Hwange National Park to the Harare International Airport.
It is not known yet how the elephants will complete their journey to Chimelong Safari Park.