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Zimbabwe’s Elephant Crisis

By Sarah Logan

Outrage over the killing of Cecil, a tagged lion in the Hwange National Park, has recently thrust Zimbabwe’s wildlife management policy onto the international stage, generating widespread criticism by conservationists and animal rights groups. The death of one lion, albeit a particularly celebrated animal, is merely the tip of burgeoning wildlife exploitation in Zimbabwe. Yet far from attempting to curb illegal and unethical practices in the sector, the government is, in fact, actively engaged in the wildlife trade itself.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has publicly denounced Cecil’s killing, and the government has purportedly considered extraditing the hunter, an American dentist, to face charges in Zimbabwe. However, Mugabe is not known for valuing or protecting his country’s wildlife. He frequently serves lavish wildlife feasts for his birthday celebrations, and this year was no exception: baby elephant was served to the approximately 20,000 supporters that attended his 91st birthday event, and he was given both lion and crocodile carcasses to be stuffed as birthday presents.

There is growing evidence that the Zimbabwean government and its officials are themselves involved in the sale of wildlife. The government is currently in the process of completing an order to ship 200 baby elephants, as well as numerous lions and sables, to China. Although Chinese zoos are listed as the intended shipping destinations, it is likely that at least some of the elephants will be sold on to wealthy private collectors.

It appears that these baby elephants are being sourced from Hwange National Park. To capture the animals in Hwange, catchers fire shots above the herd, which they then chase with helicopters. As the herd flees, the younger elephants lag behind and are eventually caught and roped. The experience is traumatic for both the captured elephants and those that remain behind, and it is reported that some of these distressed baby elephants may have already died in captivity prior to shipment to China.

To date, 24 baby elephants have been exported. Photographs of these elephants, taken covertly in China, show them in penned, concrete enclosures eating straw. They are distinctly malnourished, covered with numerous minor injuries, and show clear signs of neglect. Furthermore, temperatures at zoos in much of China plummet to below freezing during winter months, to the extreme detriment of baby elephants. Despite this, the Zimbabwean government is reportedly holding an additional 170 baby elephant under heavy security, and Chinese veterinarians are currently preparing them for transit to China.

Elephants are exceptionally intelligent and social animals, and are particularly vulnerable to stress, trauma, and isolation from their herds. The elephants that are being sent to China are reportedly between 2 ½ and 5 years old and have not been properly weaned, significantly reducing their chances of survival. Consequently, many of these baby elephants will likely die, either en route to China or later in small, concrete cages in zoos and circuses. In the face of considerable global outcry from conservationist and animal rights groups, the export of the rest of the ordered elephants is continuing unhindered.

The Zimbabwean government will receive an estimated $40,000 to $60,000 per elephant, regardless of whether the elephants survive transit. At a time when Zimbabwe’s economy is under significant strain, and with little industry or foreign investment in the country, the government appears to regard the sale of its treasured wildlife as simply a new tactic to raise government revenue, another resource to be exploited at will.

The export of animals is legal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Special of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as it is a recognized means of generating conservation funds. However, it is unclear what portion of the baby elephant sale proceeds, if any, will actually be used for wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe. The fact that the transaction has been done without the involvement or support of Hwange National Park authorities or conservation groups makes it unlikely that the government’s motivation is to raise funds for conservation. Indeed, there is no guarantee that such revenues will ever reach government coffers at all, or whether government officials will simply pocket these gains instead.

Zimbabwe has long had one of Africa’s largest elephant populations, but elephant numbers in the country have plunged in recent years as a result of widespread poaching of the animals for their ivory. Across Africa, a staggering 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012. Poaching has accelerated since then, substantially increasing the number of elephants slaughtered in recent years.

Poachers in Zimbabwe engage in particularly lethal poaching techniques. At Hwange and other national parks, poachers have perpetuated the mass killing of elephants by poisoning watering holes with cyanide. In a single incident at Hwange, an estimated 300 elephants died, as well as numerous other animals that either drank from the poisoned watering hole, such as buffalo and kudu, or scavenged the elephant carcasses, including endangered white-backed vultures and African wild dogs. The devastation wrought by poisoning a water source in a national park is too great to fully conceive. Given the scale of the massacre, it is improbable that such mass killing is the work of the impoverished poachers from nearby villages that were charged with the crime.

The sale of baby elephants to China is particularly damning in light of Zimbabwe’s diminishing elephant population. Even if Zimbabwe did have a small expendable “surplus” of elephant to sell off, it is clearly counterproductive to conservation efforts to ship baby elephants to live in degraded living conditions in zoos. No amount of money could possibly justify the forced removal of baby elephants from their mothers before they have been weaned, or their caging in metal and concrete enclosures over 6,000 miles away.

At the current rate of decline, African elephants could die out in the wild within the next 50 years. As such, it is evident that CITES needs to revisit regulations that allow for the sale of certain animals and it should close the scope for state abuse of such regulations.

There is also a need for the governments of destination countries of the ivory trade to undertake greater efforts to control the demand side of the trade. Last week, the Californian Senate passed Assembly Bill 96, which would prohibit the purchase, sale, possession, and import into California of ivory with the intent to sell. This would be a major step towards eliminating the ivory trade in California, and it is particularly significant considering that ivory trade is greater in San Francisco and Los Angeles than in any other city in the United States except New York City. It is crucial that California Governor Jerry Brown signs this bill into law, and it is necessary for many other states and countries to enact similar legislation.

Additionally, conservationists, animal rights groups, and the people of Zimbabwe need to place substantial pressure on the Zimbabwean government to stop the export of the remaining baby elephants and, if possible, return them to their herds. As renowned wildlife photographer Karl Amman has noted, if we cannot stop the state-sanctioned export of these baby elephants, there is little hope that we can halt the slaughter of adult elephant for their ivory.

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Sarah Logan is an Associate at Radon Law Offices in New York. She holds a MPA from Columbia University and an LLB from the University of Capetown.

[Photo by Ian Sewell

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