Hearts of Darkness: A history of Zimbabwe and China’s cruel trade in baby elephants

Dec 27, 2019 | Commentary

By Adam Cruise PhD – Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Between 2012 and 2019, Zimbabwe have sold 140 baby elephants to China. In total, there have been five separate exports:

  • 2012: 8 elephants
  • 2015: 27 elephants
  • 2016: 35 elephants
  • 2017: 38 elephants
  • 2019: 32 elephants

China became a dominant buyer of African elephants in 2012 at the time when there was a spike for the demand for elephants due to the massive proliferation in the construction of zoos and ‘safari’ parks across the country. Until recently, Zimbabwe has been sanctioned by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the UN-based organization that regulates international trade in wildlife, to sell live wild-caught elephants abroad.

Since 2012, the pattern for the capture and exports of African elephants has always been the same – juvenile elephants ranging in age from a few months to seven years old, were all captured from wild herds within Zimbabwe’s largest national park, Hwange. They are caught using helicopters from where shooters dart the young elephants. The helicopter is deployed to drive away the rest of the herd as a ground crew rushes in to winch the sedated elephants onto trailers before the herd returns. The elephants are then loaded onto awaiting crates and trucked to pens at a holding facility and quarantined for a few months before being flown on a cargo plane to China. Here, after another few months in quarantine, they are separated and sent to a variety of zoos, animal parks and circuses across the country.

During the transport, quarantine and capture processes, many young elephants were injured, or became ill. At least twenty elephants have known to have died during the period of exports.

Individual elephants were purchased from between US$ 30,000 to US$ 40,000. It is reported that most of the proceeds (approximately US$ five million) have either been used to pay government debts and/or have gone into the private coffers of Zimbabwe’s ministers and the even presidency itself.

2012 – the first export (8 elephants)

The first elephants to China began in 2012 when eight calves as young as two years old were captured and exported.

However, only four were ever seen on public display – the other four presumedly died during transport. Taiyuan Zoo in China’s Shanxi province, and Xinjiang Safari Park near Guangzhou, each received two calves, but three of these calves have since died. The last survivor is currently at the Taiyuan Zoo. He has been kept in improper housing, on hard unyielding flooring, in a barren, severely restricted space, without companionship and subjected to freezing temperatures to which he is not accustomed. Photographs of the calf showed him to be emaciated, possibly due to poor nutrition or intense parasites. His skin appeared to be very dry and irritated, with multiple skin sores that were the result of injuries sustained during transport or from parasites, chronic stress, improper nutrition, viral infection, and/or the inadequate conditions in which he is kept. On February 19, 2017, a news article in the Chinese media reported that the calf, by then aged seven, received behaviour training to mitigate the negative emotions from being solitary.

The 2015 export (27 elephants)

Despite the total failure of the 2012 sale, Zimbabwe exported 27 elephants to China in 2015 (along with lions and sable antelope), but only 24 elephants arrived at their final destination. The disposition of the three missing elephants is unknown but, given the high mortality following the 2012 shipment, they likely died during transportation.

This export came just after a National Geographic exposé in December 2014 that reported 36 elephants had been captured. One elephant was known to have died during the capture process. Presumedly, some died while awaiting shipment while were too ill or injured to fly. Illness, injury and death would become a common feature for all subsequent captures and transportation.

The 2016 export (35 elephants)

The following year, another 35 elephants were exported. The survivors (33) are currently on display in a variety of zoos. Photos released by the Shanghai Wild Animal Park in April 2017 show the elephants kept in an enclosure with concrete floors. The Chinese Quarantine Bureau noted in its records that one elephant intended for Shanghai Wild Animal Park died during transit from Zimbabwe. Only twelve of the sixteen remaining animals arrived at Shanghai Wild Animal Park, according to information on the Park’s social media. It was reported in June 2017 that the other four animals were expected to arrive at Lehe Ledu zoo in the Chongqing area in Western China but in September 2017 Chinese press reported that only three had arrived. It was also reported that the elephants traveled for more than 30 hours from Shanghai, where they were kept in quarantine for ten months.

In November 2016, high ranking members of Zimbabwe Parks Authorities along with the Chief Inspector of the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA), travelled to China to assess facilities where elephants were destined to be sent. It was their second such visit within a year. Eight facilities were assessed for compliance with the requirement that they qualify as suitably equipped to house African elephants in accordance with CITES regulations. All the sites did not meet the requirements. The inspectors expressed concerns over the poor treatment and unacceptable facilities for elephants. Their concerns, however, were ignored by the Zimbabwe Minister of Environment, Oppah Muchinguri, who gave the green light for further exports.

The 2017 export (38 elephants)

In October 2017, The Guardian published disturbing video and photographic footage showing the August 2017 capture of fourteen young, wild elephants in preparation for yet another export to Chinese zoos. It reported, “In the most disturbing part of the footage, a small female elephant, likely around five years old, is seen standing in the trailer….the animal still groggy from the sedative, is unable to understand that the officials want her to back into the truck, so they smack her on her body, twist her trunk, pull her by her tail and repeatedly kick her in the head with their boots”. The footage showed the captured animals were frightened, apprehensive, and stressed. In the holding pens, the elephants were seen huddling together because they were frightened. Most of the elephants were aged between two and four, having just been weaned or were a year or two into the weaning process.

A total of 40 elephants were captured during this period but 38 were exported – an emaciated two-year old was left behind unseen hiding in his pen and another was injured. Both ended up in the wildlife rescue facility near Harare.

The 2019 illegal export (32 elephants)

While all the previous exports of elephants have been legal under CITES regulations, a resolution banning the practice was passed in Geneva amid massive media attention and worldwide condemnation of the practice. CITES member countries at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) voted in favour of a proposal that no elephants from Zimbabwe may be removed from their natural habitat or historic range. Any exceptions to this ruling must involve an emergency situation and demonstrate positive conservation benefit, approved by the CITES Animals Committee and the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group. 

In May, a Zimbabwean law firm filed a lawsuit that stated any export was in breach of the Zimbabwean constitution in that elephants belonged to the people of Zimbabwe and not the State.

However, in defiance of both national and international regulations, 33 young elephants who had been captured in 2018 were trucked from their holding pens during the early hours of 24th October 2019, to an awaiting Saudi Arabian Airlines cargo plane on the tarmac of Victoria Falls International Airport. The animals were heard to be screaming on the tarmac; temperatures soared to 40˚C as they were being loaded. One elephant had to be offloaded for health reasons. Four other elephants apparently were left behind in the holding pens, also due to health reasons. Their fate remains unknown.

The 32 landed in Shanghai after a 24-hour journey via Riyadh and are reportedly all going to the newly built Longemont Animal Park near Hangzhou.

In the days before the transport, the ZNSPCA were continually denied access to the captive elephants, suggesting that welfare concerns were being ignored. The ZNSCPA is constitutionally permitted to access any part of the country if they suspect cruelty to animals. An urgent application for access was submitted, and an interdict filed before the export, but Zimbabwean authorities simply ignored the legal process.

In a press statement, the ZNSPCA said it “remains gravely concerned as to the obstruction, secrecy and lack of transparency on the part of ZimParks. The total disregard for animal welfare and the rule of law are a worrying development.” The ZNSPCA has since called “for a full-scale investigation into the conduct of ZimParks and its officers by all relevant authorities.”

In the meantime, an NGO based in Switzerland, officially called on the CITES Secretary-General to take action against Zimbabwe and China for a blatant breach of the CITES resolution passed in August 2019. In a letter argued that the exports were “contrary to the current interpretation of the Convention, as well as to good faith and the very spirit of the Convention.” The NGO called on the Secretariat to “take a firm stance on the implementation of the Convention and in the case of live trade, its provisions for animal welfare in general, which are inextricably linked to conservation.”

The letter, however, has been ignored while the fate of the elephants in Shanghai and the five elephants left behind remains uncertain.

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