Three weeks after 31 young elephants were exported, presumedly to China, Zimbabwe’s office of the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced the nation would examine its conservation policies.
“In light of the recent export of elephants from Zimbabwe, the government is reviewing conservation decisions of the previous dispensation and formulating a policy to move forward,” said Christopher Mutsvangwa, the Chief Advisor to the President.
A media report in the Zimbabwe’s Daily News claims that the new president actually went further than a review: the news story says the president fully banned the export of live elephants, as well as the export of rhinoceros, pangolin and lion.
This unconfirmed information has now been extensively quoted on social media.
However, no official statement from the President’s office or any other official Zimbabwean source has confirmed this. Nor could any confirmation of the source of the Daily News article be obtained from the newspaper, who’s editor suggested it came from the initial statement. This clearly did not say the practice would be ‘banned’, only that conservation policies would be ‘reviewed’.
At least, five other well-informed Zimbabwean sources were unable to corroborate the existence of a ban. Yesterday, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the body that governs the international export of live elephants, tweeted the Daily News article announcing the ban but John Scanlon, the CITES Secretary General, was also unable to confirm its validity.
For those who are familiar with Zimbabwe politics, contradictory messages aren’t entirely out of character. “Whilst I am grateful to read of President Mnangagwa’s commitment to preserving Zimbabwe’s wildlife, it is clear that there is often a disconnect between the Zimbabwe’s government’s rhetoric and what happens on the ground,” says former Senator David Coltart, based in Bulawayo. “It is time for actions rather than words. We need new policies to be implemented to address the very serious concerns raised by environmentalists…”
Zimbabwe’s export of elephants, which has seen almost 100 elephant calves exported from Zimbabwe to Chinese zoos since 2012, is becoming increasingly controversial around the globe. A Care2Petition petition to stop the trade garnered almost 280,000 supporters.
Humane Society International (HSI) submitted a letter last week, co-signed by 33 global conservation groups as well as prominent elephant scientists and biologists urging the Zimbabwean president “to immediately halt the further capture and export of young, wild elephants from Zimbabwe’s parks to captive facilities overseas.”
The letter referred especially to a recent Guardian exposé which showed undercover footage of the capture process, including graphic video of a 5-year old female elephant being repeatedly hit and kicked in the head by her captors. The letter further noted that the negative ecological and conservation issues of the live elephant trade which was highlighted in a paper presented at a meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES in Geneva.
“Zimbabwe, and any country that might consider selling elephants to zoos, need to alter their stance and instead see the importance of elephants to their country, its environment and its tourism,” says Rob Brandford, Executive Director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. “People will travel to a country to witness elephants being elephants, living wild…they will pay for themselves through the tourists they bring.”
Brandford calls the capture of wild elephant inherently cruel: “We must hope, beyond hope, that the new President of Zimbabwe acts for elephants, which means not allowing their capture from the wild, not selling them to zoos and not allowing them to be hunted – none of those acts will save elephants and the trauma it causes to individuals is unimaginable.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species (IUCN) Survival Commission African Elephant Specialist Group opposes the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use, declaring that there is no direct benefit for their conservation in the wild. South Africa has banned the capture of elephants from the wild for permanent captivity in 2008.
Damien Mander, Founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), believes the recent statement from the office of the President will “begin to shape Zimbabwe’s future position and the government’s willingness to work with the global community.”
“There is still much baggage to be shed,” he admits, but “discussions with the new leadership leave me confident that Zimbabwe and its conservation policies are moving in the right direction, step by step.”
But, while Mnangagwa hailed Zimbabwe’s current progress with regards to the conservation of pangolins and the IAPF’s introduction of an all-female anti-poaching unit, he made no further mention whether his government would continue with the capture and export of live wild elephants.
In the meantime, the Chinese foreign ministry replied: “We do not know of such circumstances” when questioned on the last round of export of elephants to China in December last year, including when they arrived and their condition.
Animal welfare advocates sent photos of an Ethiopian Airways cargo flight which they claimed transported the elephants from Victoria Falls to China.
Flight analysts at FlightAware, a global flight tracking system, identified an Ethiopian Airways Boeing 777 Cargo aircraft, that departed near Victoria Falls on December 29. The aircraft appears to have stopped for fuel near Mumbai India and was tracked until it ultimately arrived near Guangzhou, China.
Requests for comment from Ethiopian Airlines were also not responded to at the time of this writing.