Dozens of baby elephants and other wild animals are being abducted from Hwange National Park.
According to a statement by Zimbabwe’s environment minister last week, the animals are being transported to the United Arab Emirates. However conservationists are sceptical of this new information.
Eye-witness reports from tourists visiting the park have brought to light blatant live captures of baby elephants conducted by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) as well as animal capture specialists from the Chizarira National Park who are preparing the animals for export. Distraught tourists reported seeing family herds of elephants enduring gun-shots fired above their heads by circling helicopters, causing stampedes. Ground-capture teams then moved in to round up all the young calves unable to keep up with the stampeding herds.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) first highlighted this particular issue in April earlier this year when they were tipped off that an Australian national in collaboration with a Zimbabwean were looking for elephants in Hwange to earmark for Chinese zoos. Now it looks as if the process has kicked into action.
According to an under-cover wildlife investigator who was in Hwange last week, the elephant calves are being contained at the Mtshibi Animal Capture Unit’s holding centre, about 7 kilometres from Hwange’s Main Camp, where they are being vetted for diseases prior to being exported to China.
So far 34 baby elephants between the ages of 2 ½ and 5 years old, 7 lions and about 10 sable antelope have been rounded up for shipping but the investigator was not allowed to get close enough to the compound to photograph as security there has become extremely tight.
It is expected that the animals will be shipped by container trucks to Maputo in Mozambique where they will be transferred to a livestock freighter and sent on an arduous sea passage.
ZCTF Chairperson, Johnny Rodrigues, states that the baby elephants ‘quite likely won’t survive the trip.’ Even if they do, Chinese zoos are notorious for mistreatment of animals that include public feeding of live animals to overfed predators, electric prodding and goading by throwing stones and other objects to get the animals to respond in front of visitors.
Many animals die as a result of malnourishment and harsh unsanitary conditions and there are even cases where large dogs have been ‘dressed up’ to pass off as lions who have passed away. Rodrigues affirms that the animals ‘are now being sentenced to a life of inhuman treatment.’ ‘This is very traumatic,’ he continued, ‘not only for the baby elephants but also for their families. We have to try and stop this export from taking place.’
This is not the first time baby elephants from Zimbabwe have been abducted for Chinese zoos. In 2013 three young Zimbabwean elephants were transported to China on an Emirates flight. Having endured the journey, they were exposed to confinement and freezing weather conditions. One died as a result and the remaining two are now in poor health. There were six more elephants earmarked but they were returned to the wild after ZCTF brought a high court application against the wildlife management authority, while advocacy group Avaaz launched a campaign that grabbed international headlines, which ultimately forced authorities to cancel the transaction.
Now it seems that Zimbabwean authorities are at it again. Earlier in the year a damning report by Born Free USA noted that Zimbabwe has particularly close business ties with China. ‘The cash-strapped Mugabe government is extremely dependent on Chinese aid and investment,’ they stated, ‘and accepts Chinese currency as legal tender.’ In return the Zimbabwe Zanu-PF ruling party have allowed large Chinese investment in its natural resources. There have even been allegations that ivory has also been flown to China through the Chinese Embassy in Harare. Furthermore, President Mugabe has on more than one occasion announced that Zimbabwe’s wildlife needs to start paying dividends. This sentiment has been followed up by top-raking Zanu-PF officials and one of them, Masvingo’s Governor Titus Maluleke, went on record saying: ‘We are not interested in wildlife…we want cash.’
China and Zimbabwe are making use of a loophole in CITES ruling which lists Zimbabwe’s elephants under Appendix II, meaning that international trade may be authorized by the granting of an export permit. Zimbabwe is part of a handful of southern African countries (that includes South Africa, Botswana and Namibia) with Appendix II listings as CITES has deemed that elephants in these countries are not endangered or threatened as they are in Tanzania for example whose elephants are listed under Appendix I due to rampant poaching. As ZCTF’s Rodrigues articulates on the latest roundup of Hwange’s wildlife ‘the only crime the animals have committed is being born in Zimbabwe.’
Investigative filmmaker Karl Ammann believes that there is a more nefarious reason for China and Zimbabwe exploiting this CITES loophole. He contends that the animals are not just allocated for zoos or safari parks but for other ‘commercial’ spectacles like circuses; or worse, for their products. Ammann maintains that ‘where there is a demand there will be a supply and the Chinese safari park industry has become a key to such a demand source.’ The Swiss-born wildlife filmmaker divulges that South Africa, the continent’s largest exporter of live animals to China, had to stop the export of live rhino to China last year ‘for fear of commercialization’. He had already documented a group of five exported rhinos that were supposedly released into a Chinese ‘safari park’ but found that only two were on display. Both had indications of the horns being regularly shaved down while there was no evidence of the remaining three ever arriving at the facility. Ammann has also revealed that of the live animals – from lions to chimpanzees – which have been shipped to Chinese zoos and safari parks, only a fraction are ever found at the facilities they were intended for.
Ammann believes that if this latest transaction is allowed to go ahead it will ‘open the floodgates’ on a dark new chapter in China’s iniquitous desire to rob Africa of its wildlife.
Adam Cruise a published travel writer, photographer, adventurer and student in philosophy specialising in environmental ethics. He specialises, and is passionate about, the environment and the impact humans are currently having on the natural resources throughout the sub-continent. Adam works with Conservation Action Trust www.conservationaction.co.za