An African elephant in the veld... at least 100 have been sent from Zimbabwe to china's zoos Picture: Michael Lorentz
Durban -  In the last two years, China has imported more than 80 live  Asian elephants from across its border in Laos and almost 100  juvenile African elephants from Zimbabwe. They were all  destined for zoos throughout China.
According to wildlife investigator and film-maker, Karl  Ammann, the Laotian Prime Minister last year publicly  declared the trade in live elephants illegal under national  laws. Furthermore, says Ammann, the transactions should not  have been possible under  the Convention in the Trade of Wild Fauna and Flora  (CITES).
Asian elephants are considered a species threatened with  extinction (Appendix I) meaning that  commercial trade in Asian elephants is prohibited unless the  elephants are ‘leased’ for non-commercial purposes or they  originate from a CITES-approved facility of captive-bred  animals. 
According to Ammann, Laos does not have a single  CITES-approved breeding facility.
Zimbabwe’s elephants, are listed under Appendix II.  This means that trade is allowed, provided the Zimbabwean  authorities do not deem it “detrimental to the survival of the  species” and that they are “satisfied the animals are legally  obtained”.
There is no mention in the CITES regulations on the welfare or  the ecological issues that may arise from snatching juvenile  elephants from their family herds in the wild. What’s more,  Zimbabwe alone determines whether the trade is detrimental  or whether they are legally obtained. There aren’t any  independent checks from the international community or  CITES.
In 2016, China officially imported 50 live elephants from Laos,  as stated by the CITES trade database, while Ammann’s  undercover interviews with elephant handlers – or mahouts –  on the China-Laotian border revealed a further 30 went in  2017. Laos, however, has no record of the corresponding  exports.
“The assumption then,” says Ammann, “has to be that a lot of  these imports and exports were done without the requisite  CITES import and export permits.”
According to a CITES-lead investigation last year, “information  was made available to the Secretariat suggesting the possible  leasing of domesticated Asian elephants to China without  CITES documentation.” Leasing of domestic Asian elephants  for non-commercial purposes is authorized by CITES, provided  permits for their export and import are provided.
The ‘leases’, however, are anything but non-commercial.
Ammann discovered that some zoos have paid Chinese  middlemen up to 10 times as much as the latter paid owners  in Laos. So-called captive elephants in Laos sell for about  R390 000 before being walked across the border into China.  Thereafter they are transported to receiving facilities, which  buy them from the agents for up to R3,9 million per animal.
“That is a nice mark-up,” Ammann said,  “and makes it exactly the kind of commercial transaction  which under CITES rules is not acceptable.”
CITES has been slow to react, and when it has, the  reaction has been ineffective. In July 2016, the CITES  Secretariat noted “gaps in implementation” and  recommended that Laos “improve its compliance ability and  law enforcement of illegal wild animal and plant trafficking.”
In July the following year, A CITES Technical Committee visited  Laos to investigate the trade in live elephants, among  others. Its findings were presented at the 69th Meeting of the  CITES Standing Committee in Geneva in November last year.
The report found that the trade in live elephants was indeed  illegal, stating further that “it is understood that the  international movement of some elephants… occurred in  contravention of the national legislation of Laos and CITES  provisions.”
But, while the Standing Committee called on Laos to improve  implementation combating the illegal trade in animals and  plants in other areas or face a trade suspension, no such  recommendation was made with regards to the trade in live  elephants.
While Laos and Zimbabwe seem to be getting all of the  attention, Ammann believes that China also needs to be held  accountable, if not more so.  “China has been on the front lines of importing iconic live  species from rhinos to killer whales, elephants and recently  150 chimps – all totally illegal. Article VIII of the convention  dictates that parties involved in the illegal import be  prosecuted, the animals in question confiscated and, if
possible, repatriated. But this does not seem to apply to  China,” he says.
Sebastian Korwin, Legal and Policy Advisor for the David  Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, says the equity of the CITES  decision-making process needs to be called into question.
“There was a serious risk during the Standing Committee  meeting,” he said, “that poorly-funded developing countries  were unable to fully engage and that important decisions  were made by a select few.
The live elephant trade to China is a particular example of the  lack of equity at CITES. Elephants are a popular attraction at  Chinese circuses and zoos and in some places they are still  expected to perform. Conditions are usually poor, with the  elephants often chained and confined in small concrete  enclosures. CITES, though, allows China to determine whether  the facility receiving imported elephants is suitably equipped
to house and care for them. There is no requirement for  outside, independent assessment.
“The double standard at CITES, therefore, benefit the more  powerful and well-resourced countries,” says Korwin, “this  includes China and not the weaker countries, such as Laos.”

Courtesy of the Conservation Action Trust. See http://conservationaction.co.za

The Independent on Saturday