Is China Taking Zimbabwe’s Baby Elephants?

Reports indicate that China is trying to export 36 young elephants from a country where the pachyderm population is plummeting.
(Photo: Christopher Scott/Getty Images)
Dec 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

As if Africa’s elephants didn’t have it bad enough, it now appears that Zimbabwe is prepared to sell three dozen of its young pachyderms to China for display in zoos or entertainment parks. The elephants, which have reportedly already been gathered for export, are all younger than five years old.

“Those young elephants would one day be able to reproduce,” said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a nonprofit organization that has posted a petition opposing the sale. “By taking them out of Zimbabwe, it further reduces the elephant population.”

The country’s elephant population dropped from 84,000 in 2007 to 47,000 in 2012 because of rampant poaching for the animals’ ivory tusks, which are mainly sent to China.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force first got wind of the proposed sale in March, when it received reports that unidentified Chinese zoos were seeking to buy a group of elephants. The collection apparently took place last month and was witnessed by several tourists at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.

“We were told by a tourist that they saw the baby elephants in a boma [enclosure],” Rodrigues said. “When they asked some questions, they were told that the elephants were bound for China.”

Later, another group of tourists reported seeing a helicopter firing a rifle above the heads of an elephant herd. “When the herd stampeded, they captured the babies who couldn’t keep up,” Rodrigues said.

Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority did not respond to requests for comment.

The elephants are not alone. The task force’s investigators also witnessed the roundup of seven lions and 10 sable antelopes. The investigators, who were prevented by security guards from photographing the animals, estimate that the elephants are between two and five years of age, too young to be weaned from their mothers.

Rodrigues said he has heard that the animals are not doing well in captivity, and one of the young elephants reportedly died and was then carved up for meat for the people working in and around the boma.

Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, told Times Live that the elephants had been collected for export but said they were destined for the United Arab Emirates.

Conservation groups discounted that claim, pointing to a case two years ago in which four young elephants were captured in Zimbabwe and shipped to China by way of the UAE. Three of the four have since died, they said. The Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species released a statement in 2013 after the first elephant died, calling the sale legal and saying all parties had the appropriate import and export permits. The public uproar after the initial death was enough to cancel the shipment of five additional elephants in January 2013.

Rodrigues said he is hopeful the same thing will happen this time, although there has not been an official response from Zimbabwe authorities to the petition or the public outcry on Twitter. “With all the interest that the world has shown in this case, I think it is very possible that we might be able to stop the export,” he said.