Undercover Photos: Plight of Zimbabwe's Captured Baby Elephants

Pictures of 80 elephants slated for sale raise concerns about their health.

Picture of young elephant, separated from its mother in Hwange National Park
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This young elephant, separated from its mother in Hwange National Park, is one of scores being held there in prison-like conditions, waiting to be shipped abroad, likely to China. Longtime elephant behavioral expert Joyce Poole says the elephant “is clearly apprehensive about what she sees, hears, smells on the other side of the bars.”


New photographs of some 80 young elephants that are being held in a heavily guarded facility in Zimbabwe suggest that the elephants are under extreme duress, according to an expert familiar with the animals’ behavior.

The elephants, who were snatched from their families in the wild, are being held in a facility in Hwange National Park. Their captivity is part of a plan by the Zimbabwe government to capture and sell dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young elephants to unidentified foreign buyers.

Sources in Zimbabwe say the elephants, estimated to be about four years old, will be exported imminently.

Elephant behavioral expert Joyce Poole, who examined the photographs, says that some of the young elephants in the images appear to be stressed and alarmed. Of one shot of a female calf, Poole wrote in an email: "She is clearly apprehensive by what she sees, smells, hears on the other side of the bars."

Zimbabwe’s plan to send the young elephants overseas has drawn criticism from many wildlife conservationists. They see the government’s plan as a cynical and cruel move against an animal that is being slaughtered at alarming rates for its ivory, especially to satisfy demand in China. Poachers killed 100,000 elephants from 2010 to 2012.

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This wet, muddy enclosure holds at least five calves. “The calf with the flop ear appears to be a female and has a pinched face and lackluster skin,” Poole says. “She looks to be in mid-motion as if about to toss her trunk at something or to sniff the air.”


Kelly Landen, the program manager for Elephants Without Borders—a Botswana-based organization that monitors elephants’ cross-border migrations in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—wrote in an email that considering “present global efforts, campaigns and support to combat poaching, illegal wildlife trafficking and animal welfare, the world has remained largely silent about this, an issue that must be the most notorious case of wildlife abuse in recent history.”

Zimbabwe has cast its plan—which is legal under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—as a lawful effort to cash in on a natural resource. 

A January 20 paper by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate, titled “Zimbabwe’s Position on Live Sales of Elephants and Other Wildlife Species,” elucidates the country’s new plan to aggressively cull, capture and export elephants (Read: Zimbabwe’s The Herald: “Live Elephant Sales Better Than Culling.”) Zimbabwe officials say the elephants will be sold for $40,000 to $60,000 each.

Last week, Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, reportedly said that the funds raised by exporting the elephants will help provide salaries to the country’s wildlife rangers, who otherwise would themselves turn to poaching elephants for money.

Biologist Mike Chase, the founder of Elephants Without Borders, opposes Zimbabwe’s approach: “Capturing wild elephant calves is counterintuitive to raising funds for conservation. It is a gross violation of animal welfare and might repel would-be visitors to a national park that has an exemplary ecotourism reputation.”

The new photographs of the captured elephants in Hwange were obtained recently by a U.S. security firm that is orchestrating an undercover information-gathering operation about Zimbabwe’s elephant export program. The images were provided to National Geographic by the security firm. The firm’s president has requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Wendie Wendt, the former executive director of the Big Life Foundation, a conservation organization in East Africa, and former vice president and fundraising director for U.S. Friends of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, has been the driving force behind the operation. Wendt engaged the help of the security firm in January and has been trying to learn when and how the elephants will be shipped out of Zimbabwe and where they might end up.

The security firm Wendt hired is working closely with a primary source in Zimbabwe. National Geographic has been in contact with this source through the firm. The president of the firm says the source is trustworthy, based on previous work with the source.

According to the firm’s president, the sources providing information to him about Zimbabwe’s elephant sales program are doing so with fear of reprisal or even death.

The ‘Pinched Look’ of Orphaned Elephants

Poole, the co-founder of ElephantVoices, a research and advocacy organization based in Kenya, has been speaking out against the capture of baby elephants since the 1990s, when she went to court in South Africa as an expert witness in a case that involved the capture of 30 babies in Botswana.

Poole says the young captives in Zimbabwe appear to be about four years old.

"For the most part," she wrote in an email, the elephants "do not look thin in their bodies, but they do look thin in their faces. Their faces have the pinched look that we recognize in young elephants who have lost their mothers or have been captured. I have seen this look many times in wild elephants who have been orphaned."

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“The female calf in this image looks thin around her shoulders,” Poole says. “By her posture—ears spread and lifted, jaw line raised, trunk extended—she is clearly frightened.”


Poole says the skin condition of the animals looks "poor" and lacks the "luster" of that of wild elephants.

The source in Zimbabwe reports that the capture facility in Hwange National Park is being monitored by 15 national park guards equipped with AK-47s, radios, flashlights, and handcuffs. The property is also under surveillance by hidden cameras.

Their faces have the pinched look we recognize in young elephants who have lost their mothers or been captured.
Joyce Poole | elephant expert

"Some guards," the source wrote in an email "spy on other guards as well, being paid $5,000 a month and some allowances to keep mum on activities."

According to the source, some elephants are being held in groups of two in a separate facility closer to Victoria Falls, near the border with Zambia. The source also says that at least one elephant there has died in a fight with another elephant.

Where Will The Babies Go?

The destinations of the young elephants—as well as their buyers—are still a mystery.

Zimbabwean officials originally said that China, Thailand, and France would receive the elephants. All three countries have denied this. Last month, the Zimbabwe source reported that they were to be shipped to Thailand and China. There are no signs this has happened.

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A few young elephants seem to be confined together in these enclosures. In Poole’s opinion, “The elephant in the foreground is alarmed—as seen by the raised and spread ears and extended trunk—presumably by whomever is taking the photograph.”


Meng Xialin, of the CITES management authority in China, has denied that the elephants are being acquired by China. But animal welfare groups believe that Chinese zoos are likely buyers.

Gabriel Grace, the Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), recently wrote about the life of captive African elephants in China and says that elephants are a highly popular tourist attraction.

Chinese zoos are all clamoring to have their own elephants.
Gabriel Grace | Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare

"Chinese zoos are all clamoring to have their own elephants," Grace says.

A Chinese researcher, who asked to remain anonymous, says that based on his observations, some elephants in zoos and circuses in China are confined in small indoor enclosures with cement floors.

On average, he says, Asian elephants die before they reach age 18, decades sooner than elephants in the wild. Some elephants are made to perform tricks such as sitting, standing on their heads, dancing, and walking on a balance beam. According to the researcher, “there is no other way to train the elephants to perform than [through] beatings.”

The Zimbabwe source says that the young elephants will be shipped from the international airport at Victoria Falls. The airport is undergoing extensive renovations, including the expansion of a runway, financed by the China Exim Bank.

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In this view, Poole notes that “the calf to the left has a pinched, sunken face, with the cheek bone prominent and sunken temporal lobe and jaw line. The calf to the right, with the flop ear, moving away and looking back, is alarmed by the presence of people.”


"Most [of these elephants] are about two meters high," the source wrote in an email, "and they [Zimbabwean officials] want to ship them as soon as possible before they get more weight—they're assuming the airport renovations will be done [soon]."

Zimbabwe's Minister of Environment, Water, and Climate, Saviour Kasukuwere, has not responded to repeated requests for comment. Nor have responses been received from Edson Chidziya, director general of Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), the CITES management authority in Zimbabwe; Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a public relations official at ZimParks; and Geoffreys Matipano, conservation director for ZimParks.

Why So Secret?

Johnny Rodrigues, director of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, the organization that brought the young elephants’ capture to light, says the shadowy nature of the elephant export is disturbing.

These elephants are not where they belong. They should be with their families out in the wild.
Wendie Wendt | former executive director of the Big Life Foundation

"It's appalling that it's been kept such a secret. They must know that they're doing wrong, so the less people know, the less questions will be asked.”

"If the local people living in the surrounding wildlife areas find out that Zimbabwe is exporting these elephants," Rodrigues said, "they will want a share of the proceeds, which is their right."

Rodrigues questions where the money from sales of the baby elephants will go. "We don't believe any will go back into conservation. These animals don't belong to Zimbabwe. A lot of them come from Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, and if we don't put a stop to this, it will become a trend. I believe this will eventually create a conflict in Africa."

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“This photograph,” Poole says, “shows a female calf of about four years of age. She is apprehensive, as seen by her raised and extended ears and the way her trunk is curved back toward her body. Her face looks pinched.”


Wendt, whose goal is to secure the release of the elephants before they're exported, says the photographs from the capture facility have added to her sense of urgency.

"It's clear that these elephants are not where they belong. They should be with their families out in the wild. They shouldn't be in this horrific environment waiting to be shipped out to God knows what fate. It’s unconscionable.”

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