By Dr Adam Cruise
Ever since the announcement by Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) on the 2nd December 2020, the intended capture and export of dozens of wild elephants in Namibia has been the subject of global media coverage. Yet, as the first captures begin, the destination of the elephants remains shrouded in secrecy.
In a press statement on the 11th August 2021, the MEFT announced that it had accepted three of five bidders for the sale of 57 elephants, 42 of which are to be exported outside the country. The statement did not say who the importers of the elephants were.
Namibia’s history of exporting elephants
According to international wildlife trade regulations under the The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Namibia ostensibly may only export live elephants to countries within their natural range. In other words, elephants may only be exported to countries within Africa south of the Sahara. However, there is widespread speculation that Namibia will export the 42 elephants beyond Africa through the use of a controversial interpretation of CITES regulations. This move threatens to undermine the goodwill of the convention and sets a dangerous precedent for the protection of elephants throughout Africa.
Namibia has exported elephants beyond Africa using this interpretation before. In 2012 and 2013, twenty-four elephants were sold to Mexico and Cuba respectively. In 2017, there were reports that Namibia would sell five elephants to a safari park in the United Arab Emirates, but the sales did not go ahead. That transaction fell through after the Namibian government halted their export over concerns about the capture and transportation methods and, according to the Environment Minister, Pohamba Shifeta, that the safari park in Dubai failed to meet the standards to suitably house and care for them.
Fast forward to 2021, and it is therefore quite feasible that Namibia will attempt to export elephants out of Africa again. This is made more feasible by the fact that the CITES Secretariat issued a public statement on 8th September that all but gave the green light for Namibia’s exports ex situ Africa.
That statement was quickly but only slightly revised by the Secretariat on the 17th September after Fondation Franz Weber (FFW), an NGO involved in the protection of African elephants, pointed out that the role of the CITES Secretariat ‘is to ensure the operational functioning of the Convention, and not to substitute the Parties’ judgement on how the Convention is applied.’ FFW also reminded the Secretariat that Namibia’s interpretation of the CITES regulations is currently under review with the CITES Standing Committee. This implies that any exports of elephants ought to be shelved until the Standing Committee issues its findings in 2022.
However, neither Namibia nor the Secretariat seem willing to abide by any compassionate pause of the intended exports. The rounding-up and captures of the elephants have begun in earnest and its now a matter of days or weeks before the elephants jet off to some foreign country outside Africa.
But where exactly are they going?
United Arab Emirates?
The UAE looks to be a likely candidate. The Middle-Eastern country unsuccessfully tried to export five elephants from Namibia in 2017 but were successful in importing four young elephants from Zimbabwe a year later. Rumours are currently swirling in Namibia that the MEFT has already earmarked around a dozen of the already-captured elephants for the UAE while according to a US welfare organization, Animal Survival International (ASI), the elephants are likely to go to the Al Ain Zoo in Abu Dhabi, which apparently confirmed that it is expecting elephants early next year but would not say from where.
United States of America?
The USA is another likely candidate and also the subject of rumours within Namibia that the MEFT intends to export some of the 42 elephants to zoos in that country.
Like the UAE, US zoos have imported live wild-caught African elephants before. In 2016, the USA imported seventeen elephants from eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). The US had previously imported eleven elephants from the southern African country in 2003. The 2016 elephants went to three US zoos: Dallas Zoo, Texas; Sedgwick County Zoo, Kansas; and Henry Doorly Zoo, Nebraska. One elephant died prior to being flown out and another young male died shortly after arriving at the Henry Doorly Zoo.
China is the largest importer of wild-caught African elephants. Since 2012, the country has imported 140 elephants, all juveniles and all from Zimbabwe. The country’s preference for baby elephants rather than adults (they are easier to train for live performances), as well as its hitherto exclusive trade with Zimbabwe, make China less of a candidate than the UAE or USA. However, that is not to say that an export of elephants to China is within the realm of impossibility.
Ultimately, whether the elephants end up in the UAE, USA, China or anywhere else, the removal of these animals from their natural habitat should never be allowed.
The African elephant is a charismatic and iconic species with strong local and international support for its protection. Serious concern has been expressed by elephant scientists and experts, African elephant range States, the general public and others about the negative welfare impacts caused by capture of elephants from wild herds for the purpose of exports to captive facilities outside its range, such as zoos and circuses.
Elephants are extremely intelligent, sentient animals, with cohesive social structures including strong family bonds that can last a lifetime. Disruption of these bonds is physically and psychologically traumatic for both the captured elephants and the herds remaining in their natural habitat, and leaves lifelong scars. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group has been opposing the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use for many years. They state that the capture of elephants and export to captive facilities outside of Africa has no conservation value.
It is also well documented that African elephants do not breed well in captivity, that they have drastically shortened lifespans in captivity, or suffer from an array of illnesses, which never occur in the wild.
This is all made worse by the flagrant disregard by the Namibian MEFT, and whoever the importing country may be, that these elephants have been forcibly removed from an area that will likely see the collapse of a rare population of uniquely desert-adapted elephants. Of major concern are the extremely low numbers of breeding bulls and high infant mortality rate (100% since 2014) of the population in this area of the Kunene Region. The big question is whether the MEFT’s plan to remove live elephants from this specific area is viable. The removal of any number could have severe implications on an already fragile and isolated desert elephant population.
That, above all else, is the greatest travesty of international wildlife justice.
Adam Cruise is an award-winning investigative environmental journalist, academic and author. He has contributed to a number of international publications, including National Geographic and The Guardian covering diverse topics from the plight of wildlife in Africa to coral reef rejuvenation in Indonesia. He has a PhD in Philosophy specialising in environmental ethics from Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Cruise recently conducted a field investigation into Namibia’s live trade of elephants.
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