Zimbabwe: Selling Elephants to Save Them – Is it Logical?

May 17, 2019 | News

By Maulline Gragau – The African ExponentZimbabwe has sold nearly 100 elephants to China and Dubai for a total price of $2.7 million over six years, the country’s wildlife agency said, citing overpopulation.

It has become apparently clear that the population of elephants across Africa has been declining at a rather alarming rate largely due to poaching for ivory. Poaching has been fueled in part by the high demand in the Far East for ivory, rhino horns and other animal parts.Experts have estimated that China is responsible for about 70% of the world ivory market. Beyond statistics, I have personally witnessed it in Africa. In some countries the phenomena of Chinese buying/smuggling ivory is more prosperous, such as Mozambique; in some countries the level is very preliminary, such as Namibia. However, it is there without sign of weakening. So when Zimbabwe sells over 100 elephants to China and Dubai, there is good reason to be concerned. 

According to Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesman Tinashe Farawo,  the elephants had to be sold because they were overcrowding national parks, encroaching into human settlements, destroying crops and posing a risk to human life. One is forced to ask whether there is truly no alternative to overpopulation. Would it not be prudent to relocate the elephants to other parks within the country as opposed to selling them to countries with checkered histories of wildlife conservation?

Chinese Double Speak

In 2017, China did state that it was in the process of taking steps to close its domestic ivory market by the end of 2017 but there is still a complete lack of enforcement against Chinese nationals who are involved in the illegal ivory trade. Additionally, towards the end of 2018, China lifted a 25-year ban on trade in rhinoceros horns, tiger parts and other animal parts on the grounds that they were useful for medical treatment and scientific research. The lifting of the ban was construed as a major blow to conservation efforts with Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of the UK-based Tusk conservation charity stating that:

China will no doubt look to hide behind the fact that they say this only applies to farmed rhino, but they do not have enough rhino in China to begin to satisfy consumer demand for rhino horn. As such, the market will look to Africa to supply the trade and the criminal networks that already exploit this market will increase the slaughter of a species that is at high risk of extinction unless we eradicate the trade outright.”

The Shuidong Syndicate

In July 2017, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released their report, The Shuidong Connection, detailing their almost three-year undercover investigation into the illegal ivory smuggling trade between China and Africa. EIA gained access into this notorious syndicate by posing as interested ivory buyers, gaining their trust and then revealing in their report how exactly the smugglers go about moving ivory from Africa to the Far East.

The largest hub for ivory trafficking is based in Shuidong, a small remote town in the southern province of Guangdong, China. This town is the hub for Chinese-led criminal syndicates that the authorities have yet to apprehend.

Apart from smuggling ivory, they are also involved in trading in pangolins (African and Asian), rhino horn from Africa, totoaba (fish swim bladders), and previously in sea cucumbers from Tanzania (sought out for their high protein content and supposed health benefits).

At the time of the investigation in 2016, the EIA gained valuable information into how one particular crime syndicate ran their illegal smuggling operations from Mozambique and Shuidong.

Zimbabwe’s Justification

Zimbabwe Chronicle newspaper notes that between 2012 and 2018, at least 93 elephants were safely airlifted to parks in China and four to Dubai. The elephants were sold for prices ranging between US$13,500 and US$41,500 each.  

It is important to note that Zimbabwe is one of the African countries alongside Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia that have been calling for the global ban on ivory trade to be relaxed on the grounds of the growing number of elephants in some regions. Many wildlife conservationists have condemned such calls arguing that to the contrary the elephant population is not on the rise and has not been for the last two or so decades. 

In justifying the elephant sales, Farawo stated:

We have 84,000 elephants against a carrying capacity of 50,000. We believe in sustainable use of resources, so we sell a few elephants to take care of the rest.

According to the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesman, 200 people have died in “human-and-animal conflict” in the past five years, “and at least 7,000 hectares of crops have been destroyed by elephants”. He noted that climate change has destroyed the natural habitat of the wild animals and put tremendous stress o the national parks. Farawo further added that droughts have forced the animals to venture out of the parks in search of food and water which has, in turn, led to the human-wildlife conflict.

The spokesman said that the money obtained from the legal sales of the elephants was allocated to anti-poaching projects, conservation work, research, and welfare. While many are at their wits ends trying to rationalise the government’s actions and motives in selling elephants to countries with questionable wildlife conservation records, it seems that the government is unmoved and will continue with its approach of selling the elephants to save them whether or not that makes sense. 


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