Zimbabwe Planning to Increase Its Sales of Baby Elephants, Sources Say

Forcibly separating baby elephants from their mothers causes trauma impossible to contemplate.
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A young male elephant stands alone in Taiyuan Zoo, in China’s Shanxi Province. Zimbabwe exported him in 2012. Now, in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, more baby elephants have been snatched from their mothers to be sold abroad.

For opponents of Zimbabwe’s controversial plan to export scores of baby elephants, the stakes have just gotten higher.

More than 80 young elephants are being held in a capture facility in Hwange National Park, in Zimbabwe, according to sources monitoring the situation there. The sources report hearing of plans to send 27 elephants to Thailand as soon as this weekend, and 60 to China next week. It is also possible, the sources say, that these exports will be delayed.

Zimbabwe’s government would not confirm the reports to National Geographic, and it’s unclear precisely who the foreign buyers would be or what their plans might be for the young elephants, which range in age from two to four years.

Zimbabwe officials have acknowledged launching an effort to sell young elephants—which they say can bring $40,000 to $60,000 each—to foreign buyers. They say this is necessary to reduce an overpopulation of elephants and to bring much needed revenue and ecological balance to their country’s struggling parks. And they say that selling baby elephants abroad is more humane than killing elephants to reduce herds.

Wildlife conservation and animal welfare groups, however, find the export plan alarming on many levels. It could subject young elephants to cruelty, they say, and establish a troubling pattern at a time when African elephants are being slaughtered en masse to satisfy the demand for ivory, notably in China and other parts of Asia.

Exporting baby elephants from Zimbabwe could be the beginning of a very dangerous trend. We cannot let this precedent happen.

Since mid-January, National Geographic has been communicating through an intermediary with the Zimbabwe-based sources. The primary source in Zimbabwe, who asked not to be identified because of the personal risks involved in passing on such information, says that more than 80 elephants are being held in groups of ten at the Umtshibi capture facility in Hwange National Park. Hwange is Zimbabwe’s largest park, at more than 5,600 square miles.

Some wildlife conservationists and elephant advocates are trying to focus widespread public attention on Zimbabwe’s plan, hoping that international outrage will encourage Zimbabwe to reverse its export decision.

Jen Samuel, the president of Elephants DC, an organization dedicated to combating the ivory trade, says her group has communicated or met with officials in the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as with diplomats at the Zimbabwe Embassy, in Washington, D.C., to advocate for the baby elephants’ release.

Samuel fears that if this export isn’t stopped, more will follow: “Given that Zimbabwe’s president [Robert Mugabe] has now been named the African Union president, exporting baby elephants from Zimbabwe could be the beginning of a very dangerous trend.

“We cannot let this precedent happen,” she said.

An Unethical Plan

Elephant expert Joyce Poole, the co-founder of ElephantVoices, a research and advocacy organization based in Kenya, believes Zimbabwe’s plan is unethical.

“Elephants are highly intelligent, self-aware, and socially complex animals,” she said. “They feel joy and grief and are capable of empathy. Like us, their emotional well-being depends on being cared for and raised in the context of close family relationships.”

The notion of forcing babies away from their kin is horrifying to Poole. “Abducting baby elephants from their families is traumatic for the entire family and causes great and long-term suffering to the captured calf. Confinement of these large and highly social animals in captivity causes a myriad of physical and psychological ailments and early death.”

Zimbabwe’s current plan first came to light in late November, in a statement by the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a wildlife conservation charity. ZCTF claimed that 34 baby elephants had been captured and were being exported to unidentified buyers in China.

Since then, various news stories have emerged, including in the Guardian, reporting that upwards of 62 young elephants caught from the wild in Hwange are to be shipped to China, France, or the United Arab Emirates, among other nations. It’s widely presumed that the buyers would be mostly zoos and safari parks, or possibly even wealthy individual collectors, but no one has confirmed that.

Trading in live elephants is legal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global treaty on wildlife trade. (Read “Why It’s So Hard to Stop Zimbabwe’s Export of Baby Elephants.”)

The CITES trade database lists Zimbabwe as the source or exporting country for 100 to 150 elephants between 2000 and 2013.

Zimbabwe officials have said little recently about any pending elephant exports. But according to National Geographic’s primary source in Zimbabwe, daily attempts to capture more elephants in Hwange are under way: “Heavy army personnel and rangers have been deployed,” the source said, “and the area is a no-go area for tourists.”

This information, like much else that the primary source is revealing, cannot be verified because of the tight restrictions around the capture facility in Hwange and the general lack of government transparency in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

According to the source, the capture facility is surrounded by 15 guards armed with AK-47s. Furthermore, the camp is currently said to be in something akin to “lockdown”—meaning that the guards aren’t allowed to leave the area, even during their days off. The implication is that the Zimbabwe government wants to prevent information about the capture and condition of the elephants from being made public.

The “Prisoners”

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This satellite image, acquired on February 4 and provided at no cost by Google and DigitalGlobe, shows the complex in Hwange National Park where 87 baby elephants are reportedly being held, awaiting export, possibly to Thailand and China.

When asked to describe the condition of the elephants, the source said that they’re reportedly being given water, hay, and green leaves.

Some elephants apparently look well, the source said, and some do not.

“The prisoners are so stressed, they’re always crying for their mothers. They sometimes take days without eating because of stress. In the process some became very weak.”

Asked by National Geographic whether any wild elephants have come to the capture area to communicate with the youngsters, the source replied, “Yes. The wild herd [is] sometimes seen visiting the surroundings of the prison in search of their babies, as they also respond to the [elephant] cry.

“[But] because some capturing [of the young] is done kilometers away from the holding cells, some [elephants] will find it difficult to trace their babies.”

The source also advised that unidentified foreign nationals are scheduled to arrive in Zimbabwe in early February and that they’re coming to observe Zimbabwe’s elephant capture process.

Furthermore, the source said that there is a plan to release some of the weaker and overwhelmed babies back into the wild—but not necessarily permanently. “Chances are high that they can be recaptured again as long as they [are] stress-free and [have] good stamina.”

The source does not expect that the babies, when released, will reconnect with their families.

The Backstory

The ambitious effort to gather more information about Zimbabwe’s controversial export plan has been undertaken by Wendie Wendt, of the Big Life Foundation, which works to protect wildlife, mainly in the Amboseli ecosystem in Kenya and Tanzania.

Wendt says that because few wildlife conservation and animal welfare groups were aggressively campaigning on behalf of these vulnerable young elephants, she felt obligated to step in personally.

“I didn’t want to get involved, because I knew it would be so emotional,” she said. “But I felt I had two choices. I’d either be extraordinarily distraught and do nothing, or be extraordinarily distraught and be very, very active.”

Wendt’s concern for the well-being of the baby elephants isn’t surprising. Previous to her post at Big Life, she was vice president and fundraising director for U.S. Friends of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, affiliated with the respected David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which cares for orphan elephants in Kenya. (See “Orphans No More” in National Geographic magazine.)

“I couldn’t stand to think of all these elephants going through all this trauma and despair,” Wendt said. “They had a whole family that loved them and surrounded them one minute—and the next moment they were stuck in a brutal environment.”

Wendt says her goal is clear: To stop the export from happening and eventually get the elephants released back into the wild.

Getting the Word Out and Information In

During the past four weeks, Wendt has immersed herself in an exhaustive, round-the-clock political and diplomatic effort. She says she’s been talking with politicians, negotiators, and government officials in the United States, in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in Africa in hopes of bringing about a quick reversal of Zimbabwe’s export plan.

She also facilitated the undercover information-gathering effort. In the first week of January, she engaged a U.S.-based security firm to help mine facts surrounding the export operation.

Wendt says she isn’t in direct contact with the sources in Zimbabwe but that she receives periodic reports through the security firm’s president, who says he’s working pro bono.

National Geographic also has received information from the firm’s president and—with the president serving as a go-between—from the firm’s primary source in Zimbabwe. The primary source is known and trusted by the president of the security firm.

The firm’s president says the sources have expressed clearly that their role in providing the information puts them in extreme—possibly even life-threatening—danger. This is why he has requested that he remain anonymous as well, to prevent any tracing back to Zimbabwe.

Denials All Round

Although Zimbabwe makes no secret of its plan to sell elephants abroad, it has been less clear about who the buyers would be. Trade in Zimbabwe’s elephants can occur under a variety of CITES-listed “purposes,” including zoos and scientific and personal designations.

In a Radio Dialogue interview, Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe’s minister of environment, water and climate, said some of Zimbabwe’s elephants were destined for Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.).

The U.A.E.’s The National newspaper also stated that there was a pending import of elephants but that the elephants were captive, not wild-caught. Articles have also suggested that the elephants have already been shipped to the U.A.E.—for a total of $400,000.

Many news stories have reported that the elephants would be exported to France and to China, though Minister Kasukuwere denies this.

In an email to National Geographic last December, Minister Kasukuwere wrote, “We have not authorized any exports of elephants to China.” Kasukuwere’s ministry oversees the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), which as the CITES management authority is empowered to issue an export permit under the convention. He did not respond to additional requests for comment on this article.

Meng Xialin, of the CITES management authority in China, also countered the claim that China would be importing 60 baby elephants from Zimbabwe in February. “The information you got [is] not true,” Meng wrote in an email. “We did not receive information and application concerning these elephant[s].”

Meanwhile, Marco Ciambelli, of the French CITES management authority, rejected the claims that France planned to import elephants from Zimbabwe, saying they were “not grounded.” Ciambelli noted also that “would such an application be submitted, France would reject it.”

Will Travers, the president of Born Free, a U.K.-based organization that advocates for animal welfare and the protection of species in the wild, applauds France’s position.

Born Free is closely monitoring the situation, and Travers wrote that his organization has “written to all EU member states asking them to adopt the same position as the French: No live imports from Zimbabwe.”

The CITES management authority in Bangkok, Thailand, did not respond to initial email inquiries about the country’s reported intention to buy 27 elephants for shipment in February. In a later phone call, Thanawat Thongton, the head of CITES in Thailand, said that no request has been made to import elephants from Zimbabwe. (It would be illegal to bring any into the country without CITES’s approval.)

Zimbabwe’s Policy on Captures and Exports

Zimbabwe appears to be in the throes of an aggressive program to cull, capture, and export elephants.

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 its new policy. (Read: Zimbabwe’s The Herald: “Live Elephant Sales Better Than Culling.”)

The paper explains that Zimbabwe subscribes to “sustainable utilization”—balancing “conservation benefits with the needs and expectations of the people who live with wildlife.”

The Hwange region is highlighted as needing such balance. The region, according to the paper, has some 54,000 elephants, “which is above the ecological carrying capacity of approximately 15,000 elephants ... The costs of carrying such huge populations as ours is very high at both national and local levels in terms of artificial water supplies, law enforcement, habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity.”

The solution offered is nonlethal culling.

In the past Zimbabwe culled “excess” elephants by killing them. But, the paper notes, “Zimbabwe has not implemented [lethal] culling since 1988/1989, as a responsible global citizen, who is sensitive to the plight of the species at the global level.”

Animal rights groups “would obviously suggest that it is inhumane to take the lives of animals but it is equally inhumane to condemn animals to death by starvation or to expose them to poaching due to limited law enforcement capacity.”

So Zimbabwe has decided to engage in “nonlethal” efforts such as “capture and relocation including live sales and exports” of elephants.

This approach promises to be lucrative. An article in Bloomberg Business quotes Geoffreys Matipano, conservation director for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority,  as saying that baby elephants can be sold for $40,000 to $60,000 each.

National Geographic asked Matipano to comment on this, but he has not responded.

Requests for comments on the details surrounding the capture and export of the elephants—and other questions—were also sent to Edson Chidziya, director general of ZimParks; Saviour Kasukuwere; Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe’s minister of tourism; CITES Management Authority in Zimbabwe; and Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a public relations official at ZimParks. None has responded.

Culling—“All About Money”

Charl Beukes—a Zimbabwean and former professional big-game hunter who now manages a photographic safari business in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia (see “Controversy Swirls Around the Recent U.S. Suspension of Sport-Hunted Elephant Trophies”)—says he participated in some elephant culls and captures to thin herds in Zimbabwe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Over the years, he said, two main methods were used. “They immobilize adults and take the babies, or they just cull them, and the babies will stay with their dead mother. A little baby elephant will always stay with its mother, and you can then easily manhandle them—take them away and put them in a crate and send them off to a zoo or such.”

Today, he said, it’s “all about money—they can sell off animals under the pretense of culling. In defense,” he added, this is occurring because most wildlife departments are “broke.” Wildlife is at “the bottom of the financial ladder—there are many more pressing issues, like health, education, etc., to be financed first.”

Beukes said that unfortunately, wildlife managers get away with bad practices because they’re not held to account. “If you’re a doctor, and you leave something in a patient’s stomach during surgery, for example, you’re liable. If you’re a lawyer—same thing—you’re accountable and liable for your mistakes.”

But with wildlife, he said, “whatever happens, good or bad, those in charge aren’t accountable for what they have done.”

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 Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF—also expressed concern when told of the latest reports of the export plan.

In an email from Nairobi, Kenya, Coltart wrote: “Whilst there is no doubt that elephant populations in some of our national parks are unsustainably large, there is credible evidence in other national parks that elephant numbers have dropped dramatically.”

He, like Beukes, suggested that money was at the root of the plan. “There is a growing body of evidence that government is short of income and foreign exchange which may well encourage them to go ahead with exports of this nature. What is of greatest concern is that wildlife has been decimated in Zimbabwe in the last 15 years and this government has had a very poor record of environmental management.”

For Coltart, all this “leads one to fear that sound environmental practices are not being applied to any export which is taking place.”

Trauma for the Elephants

There may be no organization in the world better suited to comment on the predicament for the Zimbabwe baby elephants than the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT).

The founder of DSWT, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, has been involved with elephants for more than 50 years, and in an affidavit about the Zimbabwe situation, she called it “heartbreaking.” Tearing a baby elephant from its mother is morally reprehensible, she added, “and the emotional trauma and suffering of both mother and calf is impossible to contemplate.”

It’s like “witnessing a stranger enter one’s home, pick up one’s child, and run off with it, never to be seen again ... the baby elephants abducted endure fear, grief, panic, and all manner of emotional trauma related to such forced separation.” (Read "Elephant Foster Mom: A Conversation With Daphne Sheldrick.")

A larger statement that includes Dame Sheldrick’s words was sent to National Geographic by DSWT on January 29. It says that despite the “significant damage” already being done to the babies, if the young elephants are released to an orphanage in Zimbabwe, they’ll actually have a chance of eventually returning to life in the wild. “It would be a major undertaking, and one that would require financial and expert input.”

If the Zimbabwe government does make this decision, DSWT says, “the global community must be ready to assist.”

Wendie Wendt, in fact, says she has verbally secured the help of a wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe to take in the baby elephants if they’re released. Moreover, she claims she has an elephant “matriarch” for them to bond with.

The matriarch is “critical,” Wendt said. “Babies are completely dependent on their mom because they haven’t learned life skills. In addition to the necessary nurturing they’ll need if they’re released, they’ll need a matriarch to teach them skills like survival, food, predators. The mom—or in this case, the matriarch—will teach that baby elephant how to live in the wild.”

A protest about the export, organized by the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, is reportedly scheduled for February 7 in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

Meanwhile, the fate of the baby elephants—imprisoned now for more than three months—remains unknown.

Follow Christina Russo on Twitter.

This article has been edited to remove a passage.

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