While China’s appetite for ivory is well-publicized, there is another, less well-known market that is also wreaking havoc on Africa’s elephants.
An anonymous source has shared footage with the Guardian of an operation carried out in Zimbabwe to capture young wild elephants in order to sell them to zoos in China for profit. The operation occurred at the country’s Hwange national park on August 8th and was secretively carried out by Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) officials.
In the video clips, a group of men can be seen rushing out into the bush and then tying up a sedated young elephant on the ground. The elephant, still drowsy from being drugged, is next seen being hit on the head and having its trunk pulled by men who are trying to get the confused animal to back up into a truck.
According to the Guardian, the men catch young elephants by targeting one by helicopter, shooting it with a tranquilizer gun and then dive-bombing the herd to keep the other elephants away while the sedated elephant is bound and drove off. The source told the Guardian that during this particular operation, 14 elephants were taken out of the wild. The number would have been higher if not for a helicopter crash.
The animals are then kept in small holding pens as they await being sold. While captured wild African elephants are sold off to zoos around the globe, the trade most thrives between Zimbabwe and China. According to the source, these particular elephants were being bought by a Chinese national.
Capturing wild elephants and selling them on the international market is legal according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), but with a few important stipulations that are troublingly difficult to judge and enforce. Under Cites, the elephant’s destination must be “appropriate and acceptable” and their sale must benefit conservation in the home country. Activists point out just how flawed this system is.
“There are no criteria setting out what ‘appropriate and acceptable’ means and what is really contributing to conservation,” Daniela Freyer of Pro-Wildlife, a German-based organization that seeks to improve international legislation protecting wildlife, told the Guardian. “Currently, it is entirely up to authorities in the importing countries to define and decide. There are no common rules and no monitoring of the conditions of the capture, the number of animals being traded, where they will end up or the conditions in which they will be kept at their destination.”
Elephant experts also told Guardian about the obvious dangers of taking young elephants out of the wild and turning them into frightened orphans. In the wild, elephants are completely dependent on their mother’s milk until they are two years old, and still are not fully weaned until they are four or five. Alone, the young elephants become scared and stressed, grinding their tusks on cage bars and developing a “sunken look” in their eyes. In the same pen, they bunch together in fear.
China, the world’s largest consumer of ivory, has vowed to eliminate the trade by the end of 2017, shutting down markets and publicizing big ivory busts. However, little attention has been paid to the trade of young wild elephants. Iris Ho, wildlife program manager at the Humane Society International, told the Guardian that there is little pressure to stop the practice in China under the belief that “breeding is conservation.”
“And then, of course, there is a willing partner in Zimbabwe – and the thrill of seeing African elephants by the visitors,” she said.
[Image via the Guardian]
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