Undercover Pics of Baby Elephants Reveal the Trauma of Capture and Captivity

Experts say the treatment these young elephants are receiving in Zimbabwe could cut short their lives by decades.

(Photo: Elephants DC/Facebook)

Mar 12, 2015· 1 MIN READ
TakePart fellow Jessica Dollin studied journalism at the University of Arizona. She has written for the Phoenix New Times and HerCampus.

Photographs documenting the physical and emotional trauma of captured baby elephants suggest that the situation in Zimbabwe for these young animals is worse than ever.

The photos, obtained by National Geographic, reveal the stress some 80 young elephants are under as they are held for sale at Hwange National Park. An animal behaviorist viewing the photos described the animals to National Geographic in terms such as “scared,” “apprehensive,” and “lackluster.”

The buyers for the baby elephants are unknown, but experts speculate that they will be sold to zoos in China.

Placing calves in captivity can cause detrimental psychological harm to the animals that can lead to physical effects. According to Toni Frohoff, an elephant scientist with the advocacy group In Defense of Animals, stress in elephants can result in a behavioral domino effect of depression, lethargy, hyperactivity, and hyperaggression.

(Photo: Elephants DC/Facebook)

“What happens to the individual truly impacts the whole herd—especially in the case of females,” Frohoff said. “If they are under duress, they are less likely to be able to fulfill their duties as the elders or matriarchs of the herds.”

In an article in the state-controlled Zimbabwe Herald, government officials said they expect to get $40,000 to $60,000 per elephant calf sold. The profits would be used to pay the salaries of wildlife rangers—who ironically are in the business of protecting the animals their country is selling.

Frohoff suggests responsible ecotourism and reliable media as a means of learning about elephants, as opposed to visiting the animals in zoos. “There is no research that supports the claims that keeping the animals in captivity for public display is educational,” she said.

In the meantime, the wild population of elephants continues to be decimated by poachers, who have killed 100,000 elephants for their ivory tusks over the past three years. Wildlife conservationists see the move to ship off young elephants as counterintuitive to the species’ survival in the country, where elephant populations have declined from 84,000 in 2007 to 47,000 in 2012.

An American security firm took the photos of the Zimbabwe captives during an undercover effort and did not want to reveal its identity. The people documenting the sales are “doing so with fear of reprisal or even death,” according to National Geographic. The park was under surveillance and monitored by 15 armed guards.