By Don Pinnock, Wongai Zhangazha
Zimbabwe conservationists have launched a campaign to stop the exportation of baby elephants allegedly captured in Hwange national park to China, a move described as violating animal rights in the country.
The conservationists, led by Zimbabwe Conservations Taskforce director Johnny Rodrigues, as of yesterday had a petition with more than 10 000 signatures; however they are targeting about a million signatures.
According to international media reports, more than 30 wild baby elephants are in bomas in Hwange National Park awaiting clearance for transport over land to Maputo and shipment to China.
The probable transit destination is Shanghai Wild Animal Park in China, though the final endpoint is possibly wealthy private collectors. Rodrigues has said his organisation has received some “very disturbing” reports of animals being captured in Hwange National Park for export to China.
“Apparently, China has ordered a certain number of animals, among which are 30 lions. So far, 34 baby elephants, seven lions and about 10 sable have been captured and are being held at Mtshibi Capture Unit, 7km from Main Camp,” Rodrigues said.
“The elephants are between two-and-a-half and five year old. Our investigators have seen the animals and tried to take photos but were not allowed. The security there is very tight. They were told that the animals will be sent by container trucks to Maputo in Mozambique where they will be transferred to a livestock sea freighter and sent on to China.”
Rodrigues said the baby elephants will likely not survive the long trip to far-flung China. “They are now being sentenced to a life of inhuman treatment. This is very traumatic, not only for the baby elephants but also for their families. Elephants don’t forget and this is very dangerous for future visitors to Hwange. We have to try and stop this export from taking place,” he said.
However, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment Water and Climate, Prince Mupazviriho, yesterday dismissed the allegations saying comments made by conservationists were based on “ignorance”.
Mupazviriho said: “Nothing has been exported as yet. This is a process underway that is legal and involves a lot of processes. Our business is conservation and as we do conservation we might find the need to relocate some animals to a certain area to protect them from poachers, relocate them from a dry area that is running out of food or relocate them from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration area.
“It does not matter whether it’s being done by company xyz or country xyz as long as it is within the confines of our law and it is being properly followed. What we need to do is to balance and keep numbers which are sustainable.”
Mupazviriho said the ban on the importation of sport-hunted elephant trophies had affected the safari industry and they could not export any ivory as 65% of the market was from North and South America.
“We are not killing the animals but if the numbers exceed the holding capacity of some of the conservation areas and someone comes and has a safer place to put them which we assess, then it’s for their protection. People should understand where we are coming from — that is from a wildlife conservation perspective,” he said.
According to a South African publication The Star newspaper, an undercover wildlife investigator who provided information said the elephant calves are being held at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) Mtshibi Animal Capture Unit’s holding centre, a few kilometres from Hwange Main Camp, where they’re being vetted for diseases prior to export.
The newspaper says the tourists reported seeing helicopter and ground teams from ZPWMA roping the babies after separating them from their mothers by firing shots above the heads of the herd.
The calves would be below the age of five and not properly weaned, which reduces their chance of survival. Renowned wildlife photographer Karl Amman, who has investigated the illegal animal trade with Asia, is convinced those young elephants which survive will be used in a way which violates Chinese regulations designed to protect them.
“Based on a previous deal,” he said, “the elephants will probably sell for around US$70 000. I doubt whether a single importer would spend that money without expecting to recuperate their costs. That means they’ll be sold on and expected to earn their keep in shows. And that’s illegal.”
A Chinese government document headed The Guidance on Further Strengthening the Regulation of Zoos No 2010]172 states that no “animal performance” is allowed at any zoo or other public park and that animals may not be irritated or disturbed. Leasing out wild animals to organisations or individuals for profit is forbidden (as is eating wild animals in zoos or parks). Any violation would mean the withdrawal of a zoo’s permit to operate.
According to Amman, Cites is not allowed to issue import or export permits if national laws are flouted, but these are ignored by all the key players.
In the export of African wildlife, crooked deals and violations abound and Zimbabwe is high on the list of offenders, with high Zanu PF officials allegedly involved. The latest lion census in Hwange found only 83 lions, down from 200 two years ago. With the near extinction of tigers, lions (and lion bones) are now in high demand in Asia.
In 2012 Zimbabwe shipped four under-aged elephants to China via Emirates Airlines but two died soon after arrival. Zimbabwe elephants are being hunted for ivory tusks. In 2013, according to government statistics, over 100 elephants were killed by cyanide poisoning in Hwange National Park, although conservationists say more than 300 actually died.