Elephants with a calf in Zimbabwe. A shipment of calves, some frail, to China has raised red flags. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency

Humane Society International/Africa has condemned the capture of 35 baby elephants, some as young as two years old, in Zimbabwe to export to foreign zoos.

According to The Times of London, the young elephants are being held in pens in Hwange National Park while travel crates are prepared and the documents finalised for their journey to China.

According to the publication, this practice dates back to the era of former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, where wildlife was often sold to Asian and Middle East countries to settle debts. 

Human Society in a statement confirmed it had received footage showing the young elephants frantically pacing around the Hwange pens, some showing signs of stress such as temporal streaming (dark streaks down the side of the face from the temporal gland) and others demonstrating wide-eyed, ear-splayed defensive postures.

The organisation said, based on the trade data of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), since 2012 Zimbabwe has exported 108 young elephants to zoos in China despite opposition from other African countries, elephant experts and non-governmental organisations including Humane Society and its subsidiaries.

Commenting on this was Humane Society International/Africa’s wildlife director and an elephant biologist Audrey Delsink, who said: “The capture of baby elephants from the wild is barbaric, and captivity will be a life sentence of suffering. Video footage shows that these young animals are already displaying stress behaviour after being ripped away from their mothers and bonded family groups, and are terrified. 

"Calves normally remain closely bonded to their natal family groups; females never leave their families whilst males only leave the herd at 12 -15 years of age. With no adult females to look to for reassurance, guidance and learning, one can only imagine the youngsters’ distress. 

"Zimbabwe continues to exploit its wildlife to the highest bidder with no meaningful oversight. Recognising elephants as sentient beings, South Africa has banned the capture of elephants from the wild for captivity. Zimbabwe must urgently follow suit to redeem itself.”

Delsink’s sentiments echo those expressed last week by Kenya’s cabinet Secretary for Tourism & Wildlife, Najib Balala, who was speaking at the African Elephant Coalition (AEC) Summit in Nairobi. 

Balala had remarked: “Trade in live elephants should only be for the purpose of enhancing the conservation of the species in its natural habitats (in-situ) as the only appropriate and acceptable destination.” 

Iris Ho, senior wildlife policy and programs specialist at Humane Society International, who attended the summit, added to this, saying: “Ripping baby elephants from their mothers is morally indefensible and ethically reprehensible. 

"We cannot agree more with the Honourable Balala and the African Elephant Coalition regarding the conservation and welfare concerns related to the deliberate capture of wild elephants for the purpose of holding them in permanent captivity outside their natural range.”  

The AEC’s press statement of the summit also called for an end to the export of wild elephants to zoos and other captive facilities. 

These positions are reflected in the proposals and documents submitted by the AEC to the 18th meeting of the CITES Conference of Parties which will take place this May in Sri Lanka.