35 young elephants have just been taken from their life in the wild in Zimbabwe to spend the rest of their lives in captivity in China.
It has recently been reported that Grace Mugabe has sent the elephants to China, along with a small number of lions, hyenas and a giraffe, in exchange for boots and uniforms which were bought for the Congolese military.
On Friday, the plane that held the elephants was being held at Victoria Falls airport, according to the founder of Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, Johnny Rodrigues, where the elephants were confined in heavy crates, because officials of the operation could not find scales which were big enough to weigh the elephants.
Although exporting live elephants is legal, it has caused uproar with many people and animal advocates, who claim that removing elephants from their rightful life in the world and confining them to a life of captivity is not only morally wrong, but will also heavily disrupt their behaviour and social structure of the elephant herds.
Daniela Freyer, who works with the German-based conservation group Pro Wildlife, has expressed concerns about the transporting itself, claiming that “there is a high mortality rate during capture and in transport and in captivity. It is morally not acceptable and not sustainable.”
Oprah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, recently claimed that “Zimbabwe must sell its elephants because not only are they a global resource but also a local one, as it [the sale] will support the livelihoods of our local communities and for future generations.”
In today’s advanced society, we know a lot more about elephants than we did a few decades ago. Through detailed and extensive research projects we understand an elephant herd’s social structure, and how any disruption to this can also affect their social behaviour.
When elephant culls were a common occurrence, the entire herd of elephants was taken out due to the huge impact that is brought upon the lives of the elephants who have seen members of their family killed or taken away. Today we know about the strong family bonds, their high levels of intelligence and memory, and the deeply upsetting way in which they mourn their family members.
We also know about their heavy reliance on their mothers, and some of the elephants which were distressingly taken away from their wild life over the weekend, destined for one in captivity, were reported to be as young as just three years old.
Patricia Awori, who is from the African Elephant Coalition Secretariat, which is a coalition of 29 countries who have proposed a ban on the export of African elephants from their natural range, said that “the essence of being an elephant is that they live, function within and are shaped by their environment. Foraging for and consuming food, rolling in the mud, and frolicking with its siblings is an essential part of being an elephant. An elephant that ceases to be wild ceases to be.”
According to Chunmei Hu, who worked within the Endangered Species Fund in China, the captured elephants are likely to be sent to the Shanghai Wild Animal Park and the Yunnan Wild Animal Park, although many other zoos across China are also requesting African elephants.
A wildlife campaign manager at Humane Society International, Iris Ho, claimed that “we have a country that continues to attract international condemnation for its deplorable treatment of iconic wild animals in captivity, from Pizza the polar bear in a Guanzhou shopping mall, to elephants forced to perform or languish in captivity”.
There are even fears that the elephants could possibly be used to start an ivory-farming operation.
Ho also added that “we have a corrupt regime that disregards human rights and freedom, and that is selling its wildlife to the highest bidder with no meaningful oversight.”
It indeed seems questionable that an African country would sell wild animals, and one of its greatest iconic treasures, to one of the countries where the majority of illegal ivory is sold.