News that Zimbabwe has captured dozens of baby elephants from the wild and plans to export them overseas ignited a firestorm of alarm in conservation circles, raising new questions about the policies that govern the trade of live elephants.
Revelations of the capture came to light late last month in a report by an activist group called Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
The task force alleges that China has “ordered” a number of baby elephants and other wild animals from Zimbabwe. Johnny Rodrigues, an activist who leads the group, says that at least 36 elephants have been captured, along with 10 lions and 10 sable antelopes.
The elephants are allegedly between two-and-a-half and five years old, a highly vulnerable time in their lives, when separation from their mothers is known to be emotionally traumatic and physically dangerous.
In a Radio Dialogue interview and in a Telegraph article, Zimbabwe officials confirmed the capture of elephants but claimed that the elephants would be shipped to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), not China, adding confusion to an already mysterious situation.
Indeed, a story yesterday in the UAE’s The National also claims that the country plans to import the elephants—although the report says they’re not from the wild.
National Geographic requested comment about the Chinese export allegations from Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe’s minister of environment, water, and climate. “We have not authorized any exports of elephants to China,” he said.
(Requests for comment were also sent to E. Chidziya, director general of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks); Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe’s minister of tourism; and Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a public relations official at ZimParks. None responded.)
Accusations about the export plan have bubbled up in a variety of forums over the past ten days, including from Daniel Stiles, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s group on elephants. On December 7, he reported that a zoo in Guangzhou, China, intends to import 50 elephants.
Last week, the Times of South Africa reported that as many as a hundred baby elephants have been requested for shipment to China.
David Coltart, Zimbabwe’s former minister of education, sport, arts, and culture and now a senator with the Movement for Democratic Change, the party in opposition to President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF, is not surprised to hear that Zimbabwe is exporting elephants.
“[The] government is desperate for foreign exchange and revenue,” he wrote in an email from Harare. “Furthermore, we have seen such rampant abuse of our wildlife in the last 14 years that this would be consistent with [what]the ZANU PF Government has done during this period … There is very little ‘wildlife management’ left in Zimbabwe. Whilst there are dedicated individuals in national parks, wildlife has been plundered by a predatory regime.”
Indeed, many wildlife experts say Zimbabwe’s reported elephant exportation is just another symbol of corruption in the Mugabe regime.
But many also say the incident speaks to a broader problem: the toothlessness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international treaty that sets rules for the global trade in endangered wildlife.National Geographic