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Baby Elephants Captured in Zimbabwe - What's Really Going on?

Dec 17, 2014 06:32 PM EST
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Reports have come in that officials from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) have taken several dozen baby elephants away from their parents, in preparation to ship them to unspecified zoos. This has earned a significant amount of public outcry, even as some hard questions are being asked.
(Photo : Pixabay)

Reports have come in that officials from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) have taken several dozen baby elephants away from their parents, in preparation to ship them to unspecified zoos. This has earned a significant amount of public outcry, even as some hard questions are being asked.

This all stems from an investigation launched by the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) last month after tourists and visitors to Hwange National Park reported seeing animals being captured and taken away.

The ZCTF's investigators later reported that 34 baby elephants, seven lions, and about 10 sable were captured and held at Mtshibi Capture Unit.

"Our investigators have seen the animals and tried to take photos but were not allowed. The security there is very tight," the force reported. "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."

The investigators went on to express concerns that not only could the youngster elephants (2 -5 years old)  potentially die during the trip from Zimbabwe to China (6,000 miles as-the-crow-flies), but the harassed parents will now pose a threat to human visitors and park staff, angered by the abduction. After all, 'an elephant never forgets.'

Conflicting Claims

However, before you join in the public outcry against this apparent robbery from Zimbabwe's gentle giants, it's important to note that the ZCTF report lacked some important details. What zoos are the elephants bound for? Were these animals really stolen from their parents?

Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe's environment minister, told The Telegraph earlier this month that the capture did indeed happen, but it wasn't some kind of back door deal to feed China's ivory trade like the report implies. In fact, he said that these kinds of actions are taken "from time to time," as Hwange National Park is the country's largest game reserve. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

Kasukuwere added that the baby elephants, alongside 10 lion cubs (not seven) and the 10 rare sables, are being sent to vetted zoos and wildlife facilities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), not China. He did not specify which ones.

"We have not authorized any exports of elephants to China," he said in an email to National Geographic.

However, investigators from the Project to End Grate Ape Slavery (PEGAS) were quick to dispute the minister's assertion, calling it nothing more than a "smokescreen" to the truth.

"[We have] obtained reliable information that a zoo in Guangzhou, China, intends to import 50 elephants from Zimbabwe," PEGAS reported.

Unfortunately, their source chose to remain anonymous and never indicated where exactly these elephants were coming from, or whether they were wild or raised in captivity.

Trouble in Hwange

And despite a growing call to tar-and-feather the ZPWMA, Hwange's history indicates that Kasukuwere might not be lying.

Studies have indicated that Hwange National Park often boasts a larger elephant population than the 9,700 square-mile landscape can support, and back in the late 1960s, the park even had to implement a culling to prevent herds from starving. Since then, the park has become more sustainable, with the remaining population doubling by the turn of the new millennium. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

It should also be noted that the difficult-to-manage park suffers from poaching. Back in Oct. 2013, poachers killed 84 African elephants at once after poisoning a popular watering hole with cyanide. According to the park, efforts are taken to round up "ivory orphans" who will often stand over the corpses of their parents for days or weeks on end. The orphans, at vulnerable ages, will sometimes be taken into captivity to monitor their health and behavior.

However, it was not made clear if the newly captured animals are orphans as well.

Too Young to Move

Ironically, with all this confusion concerning the legality and destination of the Hwange exportation, the ethics of the move may be the clearest factor.

"Whatever the circumstances of their capture, we can hardly imagine the physical and emotional torment these animals will suffer: confined, alone and frightened on a long voyage," Paula Kahumbu, a leader for the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign, recently wrote for The Guardian.

"Elephant mothers suckle their young for five years," she added, "which means that many of the elephants bound for [elsewhere], some as young as two-and-a-half years old, were not physically prepared to be separated from their mothers." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

The conservationist goes on to argue that export of elephants, especially calves, should be illegal.

Current CITES rulings allow for authorized moves, as the African elephant is categorized under Appendix II, meaning it's not threatened with immediate extinction.

The result is that in the past two decades, 640 African elephants and 424 Asian elephants were exported globally, according to a database kept by CITES.

However, the shipment of the particularly young tuskers is viewed as cruel, especially after past CITES investigations revealed that elephants under five years old often do not survive their journey, and remain in poor health even if they do.

"Zimbabwe's actions ignore lessons that have been learned long ago in other countries," Kahumbu presses. "The practice of taking baby elephants, once common in South Africa, was banned there when the results of research in Kenya... convinced [authorities] of the horrific psychological suffering and trauma involved."

Distressing News

Fueling the movement to stop the export, the ZCTF discovered just last week that of the 36 captured baby elephants, one has already died of an unknown cause. It's meat was reportedly distributed to locals.

"We are extremely distressed that the elephants haven't even left yet and one has already died. 27 elephants have been medically examined and found to be fit for travel but we don't know what will happen to the other 9," the ZCTF said in an update.

In light of this news, the group recently launched a petition that already has more than 22,600 signatures. A letter was also sent to Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, urging the official to halt the importation of these elephants into the UAE - a letter that boasts the backing of a stunning 152 environmental organizations.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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