Harare - The International Fund for Animal Welfare says it is "sickened" by reports that Zimbabwe sent more than 20 elephant calves to China at the weekend.
Jason Bell, IFAW's director for southern Africa, said: “Given the spiralling poaching crisis and ongoing loss of habitat battering elephant populations around the world, unnecessarily seizing wild elephants for a lifetime in captivity is a violation of conservation principles and shows a blatant disregard for animal welfare.”
Animal lovers in Zimbabwe and around the world were up in arms at the weekend after photos emerged purporting to show a truck from a well-known Bulawayo-based company loaded with crates carrying the elephants, who were part of a group captured in Hwange National Park towards the end of last year.
Wildlife at Risk International (WAR) said that 24 calves were loaded onto two trucks in Hwange on Saturday and left for the capital Harare that evening. "Three elephants were left behind," WAR said in a post to Facebook.
"They are accompanied by armed guards and a police escort." It said the elephants had "quite possibly" been sedated.
The elephants will have had to endure a road-trip of between 10 and 13 hours to Harare, before the long flight. WAR said the flight was to be broken at Dubai for refuelling.
The elephants are now reported to have arrived in China, where they are destined for the Chimelong Wildlife Safari Park in Guangzhou.
“IFAW is sickened that, after months of rumour and misinformation, Zimbabwe has ignored the appeals of dozens of conservation and animal welfare groups, and their millions of supporters worldwide, to halt the sale and export of the elephants,” IFAW's Bell said in a statement on Monday.
Conservation officials in Zimbabwe have so far been unable to confirm the reports on what is now a highly-sensitive story. One highly-placed source said it was more important to make sure this did not happen again.
Emirates Airlines meanwhile denied claims late on Sunday that it was involved in transporting the elephants. "We can confirm that Emirates is not involved in the carriage of the elephants from Zimbabwe," read a tweet from the official @EmiratesSupport twitter handle.
Zimbabwe's Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere told MPs last month: "Despite the misplaced concerns about animal rights and welfare issues, Zimbabwe will continue capturing and translocating live animals to approved appropriate and acceptable destinations.”
The authorities say Zimbabwe has nearly double its carrying capacity in elephants - 80 000 against a recommended maximum of 42 000 elephants. One Zimbabwean elephant can fetch up to 60 000 US when sold to an international buyer.
Officials say Zimbabwe desperately needs the money to help pay state rangers and prevent poaching.
But conservationists warn poaching has taken a huge toll on elephant populations in some parts of Zimbabwe. They say it is cruel to separate calves from the rest of the herd.
"They say we've got too many elephants," Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said in a telephone interview last week. "It's absolute hogwash."
Last week Rodrigues' group claimed it had obtained leaked copies of permits for the export of elephants and crocodiles to China dated November 2014 and January 2015. The documents appeared to show that the departure of two consignments of animals was authorised to Kinjan Safari Park and Taiyuan Zoo.
The veracity of the permits could not be independently confirmed.
Zimbabwe exported four baby elephants to China in 2012.
One later died. After an international outcry, five other elephants initially destined for export were relocated in 2013 to Umfurudzi Park, 150km from the capital Harare.
“Just because the capture and export of elephants is legal, does not make it ethical or okay,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, IFAW’s Asia Regional Director.