By Adam Cruise
Regulations governing the extensive trade in wild caught baby elephants require only that they are housed in suitably equipped facilities, in appropriate and acceptable destinations, however in reality conditions in these facilities fail to care for the welfare of baby elephants.
The international trade in live wild African elephants was called into question at the 69th meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in Geneva. International trade in wild baby elephants, especially from Zimbabwe to China, has been taking place for the past few years.
Although live elephant trade is legal under CITES, concern has been expressed over its impact on the animals involved and on their families remaining in the wild. One of the few stipulations that CITES requires is simply that the elephants are housed in zoos and circuses that are “appropriate and acceptable”, a definition that has been criticised as being too subjective and lacking in detail.
As a result, an information document prepared by a group of concerned organisations such as the National Councils of SPCAs, Humane Society International, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and others was presented in the discussions pointing out that “CITES had not established adequate guidance on what “appropriate and acceptable” means.
Welfare concerns and woeful zoo conditions
The report’s findings show that zoos and other captive facilities are “woefully inadequate” to house wild African elephants.
Keith Lindsay, a conservation biologist and one of the authors of the information document says that “There is no captive facility in the world suitably equipped to house and care for live, wild-caught African elephants forcefully removed from their family groups in Africa.”
At the meeting, some countries of the African Elephant Coalition, comprising of 29 member countries from Africa, strongly urged the Secretariat not to use wild African elephants to stock zoos around the world.
Ali Abagana, speaking for the delegation of Niger told the gathering their country is “concerned about the plight of African elephants, including juvenile animals, captured and sent to captive facilities outside of the species’ range.” Abagana told the 600 delegates present that a “number of past captures have led to fatalities either in transit or shortly after arrival”.
A revision agreed upon at the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) held in Johannesburg last year, says elephants must not only be housed in a suitable facility but be shown to benefit conservation of them in the wild. Abagana, however, pointed out that many elephant biologists, including members of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, have questioned whether live capture of elephants can be of any benefit to the conservation of the species in the wild.
When Burkina Faso took the floor, it’s speaker, Benoît Doamba, highlighted “severe welfare concerns” with the captures and live trade of wild elephants and pointed to recent secret video footage of the last round of captures of juvenile elephants in Zimbabwe, which revealed elephants being beaten and repeatedly kicked in the head.
Recent reports revealed that Zimbabwe over-ruled the objections of it’s own Scientific Authority to allow exports of baby elephants to China.
“In conclusion,” says Doamba, “following the worldwide public outcry, this convention should fully recognise and address, not just the numerical status of wild species, but the welfare status too.”
Thousands of wild elephants captured
It was not only countries present that raised concerns. The report’s other author, Iris Ho, Programme Manager for Humane Society International, told the meeting that according to the CITES Trade database, 1 774 live, wild-sourced African elephants were exported internationally between 1990 and 2015, including 583 animals for circuses and travelling exhibitions and 331 animals for zoos.
“Given the large number of animals involved,” says Ho, “the importance of these animals to species conservation, and the need to protect their welfare for their own sake and to reduce pressure on wild populations, it is within CITES’ authority to ensure that conditions of housing and care at destination facilities and any facilities to which animals are subsequently transferred to are “suitably equipped”.
The CITES Secretariat sent the discussion into an inter-sessional working group of both member countries, which included China, but notably not Zimbabwe, and NGOs. Potential improvements to the CITES regulations on live elephant trade will be presented at the next Standing Committee to be held in Russia in October 2018.