Cape Town - Thirty seven baby elephants forcibly taken from their mothers in the wild in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park are about to be flown to Chinese zoos, despite an international outcry against previous exports
A number of baby elephants from similar shipments in 2012 and 2015 died shortly after arrival and two of the elephants now awaiting shipment have already died, says the Conservation Action Trust.
In 2012, only four elephants of the eight survived the journey and another three died shortly after arriving in China, leaving only one lonely survivor. In September 2015, National Geographic reported that elephants from a shipment in China were being mistreated and were slipping into poor health.
Export of elephants is sanctioned under Cites regulations, as long as trade in individual animals doesn't threaten the long-term survival of the species.
"Past elephants from Zimbabwe sent to Chinese zoos have died or languished in deplorable conditions," says Iris Ho, programme manager for wildlife at Humane Society International.
"Sending wild African elephants to zoos in China is either a literal death sentence or akin to life in prison to these animals."
Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force said two of the recently captured baby elephants had already died from starvation and thirst due to neglect.
China has apparently ordered 200 juvenile elephants to be captured for a variety of zoos and safari parks across the country over the next five years.
"If these elephant captures and pending transfers to China are confirmed," said Ho, "there is highly likely diplomatic consideration involved in the Chinese authorities' approval of the import."
She pointed to the Chinese president's trip to Zimbabwe last year and the wildlife 'conservation' deal signed at the time.
Chinese president, Xi Jinping, said then that China would continue to help Zimbabwe improve its capability to fund its protection for its wildlife by donating equipment, conducting exchanges of experience, and buying its wild animals. It's understood that the capture equipment for the young elephants was donated by China.
According to the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, there are currently around 46 000 elephants in Hwange National Park and another 6 000 in adjacent communal and safari areas.
If these numbers are true, it is hard to argue that the removals would have a significant impact on numbers but as elephant biologist, Dr Keith Lindsay says: "The bigger impact is on elephant behaviour. Taking calves away from the midst of families would be very disruptive and I would not be surprised if the adult females from the affected families were very frightened and angry about people on foot or even in vehicles," he said.
"If captures occurred in communal areas, the disruption could increase the incidence of human-elephant conflict and, if they were in the national park, they could make it harder for tourist operators to get close to elephants."
Lindsay, however, says these are only the practical considerations. "The real issue is the inhumanity of stealing offspring from mothers. We know elephants grieve for companions, including calves, who have died and the effect must be similar in the case of kidnappings," he says.
David Neale, Animal Welfare Director at Animals Asia, says information from within China suggests that both Shanghai Wild Animal Park and Yunnan Safari Park are preparing for the arrival of the latest batch of elephants with Shanghai getting 17 elephants and Yunnan 15 elephants. According to Neale, there are a dozen or so other possible zoos earmarked to receive the elephants.