New CITES Secretary-General ditches impartiality to endorse trade in live elephants from Africa to foreign zoos

Sep 30, 2019 | Commentary

By Zimbabwe Elephant Foundation

Zimbabwe Elephant Foundation calls for a global response as video footage shows clear evidence of CITES Secretary-General, Ivonne Higuero, endorsing the barbaric capture and sale of young wild elephants from Zimbabwe to foreign zoos. 

Higuero, new in her position as Secretary-General for the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), dropped established protocol of her office to endorse a controversial trade in the sale of live elephants from Africa. Her endorsement was seen as an attempt to influence decisions that, for the past year and half, had been debated in a Working Group of the CITES Animals Committee. The Working Group comprising of CITES Party delegates, members of zoo associations, legal advisors and NGOs had been attempting to control the largely unregulated trade in live elephants that has witnessed over 100 young elephants sent from Zimbabwe to Chinese and other zoos that could not suitably house and care for them.

Despite Higuero’s unprecedented endorsement, the issue was brought to a vote at the triennial CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP18) held in Geneva on the 27th of August. It was indeed a big day for elephants as Parties overwhelmingly voted to ban the trade of live elephants beyond their natural range (unless under exceptional circumstances and emergency situations). It was a resounding result – 76% voted in favour to stop the trade leaving Higuero somewhat shamefaced about her public position. 

Earlier that week, in a press conference, journalist Adam Cruise, exposed an undisclosed meeting in June 2019 between Higuero and Zimbabwe National Parks Authorities. Higuero, who had taken part in a Wildlife Economy Summit at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe on 24th June 2019, had afterwards been invited to visit nearby Hwange National Park where a group of 30 or so captured juvenile elephants were awaiting transportation to China and Pakistan. During the exchange with Cruise, Higuero admitted to the clandestine visit then gave the nefarious trade her full stamp of approval.

While acknowledging the intensive public outcry over the issue, Higuero seemed to see no problem with violently removing young elephants from their mothers and sending them off to a life of misery in a far-off country. While having no background in elephant biology, she stated that the elephants were all old enough (“sub-adults”) to be separated from their family herds (because “they had small tusks”), they were in “good physical state” and not, she claimed, babies yet weaned from their mothers as the media had portrayed. She also mentioned that the Zimbabwean management and scientific authorities as well as the previous CITES Secretariat had visited the zoos in China and declared the destinations as “appropriate and acceptable”.

Higuero challenged Cruise to provide firm evidence to the contrary adding that if such evidence were brought before the CITES Secretariat, they “would do something about it”.

“We are willing to do whatever it takes, the Secretariat is available to facilitate these things, but we need real evidence,” she said.

Cruise then pointed out that he had such evidence and that it was widely available and common knowledge. Photographic and video evidence of the elephants acquired over the years by Cruise and other investigative journalists and corroborated by real elephant biologists which were aired in a variety of global media publications show that many captured wild elephants were in poor physical condition, were extremely young, most under three years and some as young as nine months. There was also video evidence of physical abuse as well as documented evidence from the Zimbabwean management and scientific authorities that none of the dozen or so Chinese zoos that took the elephants were appropriate and acceptable. Their report had been ignored by a succession of Zimbabwean environment ministers over the five or so years that the exports took place.

When Cruise offered to provide all the evidence at hand, Higuero immediately retracted her previous undertaking, stating now that the management authority of the country in question (Zimbabwe) had to be consulted before any further involvement from her office. It seemed then that Higuero, realising she had been backed into a corner, was attempting to evade the issue altogether.

The question is: What is her motivation to endorse this controversial trade? We could speculate on the timing of her visit to the 3-day Wildlife Economy Summit at Victoria Falls on 24th June 2019. Could it be linked to an incident earlier that month June 6th when Chinese buyers were about to load the elephants on a cargo plane bound for China but had been prevented from doing so at the last minute by a High Court ruling claiming the Zimbabwean government was in breach of national law? Higuero, who has made it no secret that she favours a utilisation of endangered wildlife (ie. commercial profits from trade), was most likely brought in to add weight to Zimbabwean government attempts to overturn the court ruling and to influence the outcome at the CITES Conference of the Parties a couple of months later.

Luckily for the elephants, global sentiment has thought otherwise and banned the trade shortly after her endorsement. There are still elephants wallowing in the holding pens that must now be freed but most of all, the office of the Secretary-General needs to be investigated and brought to book. The world’s endangered animals are not hers to meddle with.


Video of the Elephants – February 2019

Parliamentary Petition Information

High Court Application Information

Letter to CITES Zimbabwe office 

Evidence showing captures by Zimbabwe Authorities    

Interview with Ivonne Higuero endorsing China’s Trade in Elephants 

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