By Peta Thornycroft, Aislinn Laing
Saviour Kasukawere, Zimbabwe's environment minister, told The Telegraph the elephants are not babies, but the plan has outraged wildlife activists
Zimbabwe has angered wildlife activists by announcing it will export 27 captured young elephants to a vast safari park in China, in a bid to raise money for its cash-strapped conservation efforts at home.
The elephants, whose capture in northwestern Zimbabwe last year sparked outrage from animal rights advocates including Hollywood actor Pierce Brosnan, will be sent to the Chimelong Safari Park, a vast Chinese corporate leisure centre in the southern city of Guangzhou .
At present, they are being held in a protected camp within the state's 10,000 square mile Hwange National Park, which is controlled by Zimbabwe's Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
Saviour Kasukawere, Zimbabwe's environment minister, told The Telegraph the elephants were all more than five years-old and have been "tamed" since capture. "I can confirm they are weaned," he said. "So they are not baby elephants."
Mr Kasukawere, who is also national political commissar for President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party, said in an exclusive interview this week, said Zimbabwe "desperately" needed to make up revenue from its wildlife operations which were "badly hit" by the US banning its hunters from returning home with trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
He added that the creation of a Zimbabwean section in the wildlife reserve would see millions of Chinese people paying to see its wildlife.
"In comparison very few would come to see our elephants in Zimbabwe, so it makes commercial sense to send our wildlife there," he said.
"After five years we will return them to the forests in Zimbabwe. We will also send other wildlife and our vets will be there to look after our animals' health and teach the Chinese about the majesty of African elephants."
The 300-acre Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou has around 20,000 animals including the largest population of koalas outside Australia.
It has however been condemned for allegedly housing its animals in poor conditions and treating them badly by conservation groups including Animals Asia.
The facility also has what is billed as "the largest circus in the world", though Mr Kasukawere ruled out the involvement of any Zimbabwean wildlife, including the elephants.
He said the final details of Zimbabwe's wildlife park within Chimelong, and travel date and route for the young elephants, are not yet finalized.
Several international wildlife organisations are preparing a statement of protest at the capture and export of the 27 elephants, according to the powerful National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in South Africa.
Elephant experts say that it would be "nigh impossile" for domesticated elephants, separated from their families at five-years-old, to be reunited with herds in the wild if they are returned to Zimbabwe from China.
"A Zimbabwe wildlife park in China sounds interesting, but we don't yet have enough details to evaluate what it will mean in terms of welfare for the animals. We need more information," Colin Gilles, one of Zimbabwe's best-known elephant conservationists from the country's second city Bulawayo, said.
Two years ago, three out of four unweaned Zimbabwe baby elephants died after they were exported to China.