A bizarre story has recently come out of Zimbabwe. Grace Mugabe, the politically powerful wife of the ageing president Robert Mugabe, has come up with a plan to settle a debt to China with 35 young elephants, eight lions, 12 hyenas and a giraffe. The debt was incurred in 1998 when Zimbabwe sent troops and bought equipment from China to help President Laurent Kabila in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila needed help fighting off a rebel movement backed by Uganda and Rwanda.
Zimbabwe’s use of live wildlife as a commodity is nothing new. And it’s not the only country to do so. It is quite common for southern African states to sell what they consider to be surplus animals to zoos or safari parks outside Africa.
In January 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service gave the go ahead for Swaziland to export 18 elephants to zoos in the US. Between 2010 and 2014, an estimated 500 white rhinos and 20 elephants were exported from African range states.
Animals are also exported to restock parks or reserves elsewhere on the continent. Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy, for example, is arranging to send eight-10 lions to Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. The aim is to help them re-establish prides in areas depleted of lions.
The sale of live animals is highly controversial, but not illegal as long as rules established by CITES are followed. These require that live exports only be between two CITES members and that both parties’ management authorities for CITES ensure that the export permits are valid.
The authorities need to ensure that “the export of the animals would not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild” and would be taken to “to appropriate and acceptable destinations”.
But the removal of young elephants from their herds – as happened in Zimbabwe – is highly damaging to the animals and to the herd as a whole. This form of removal has been called a “a mad act of cruelty”.
The Zimbabwean embassy in China has denied the reports of the sale and there has been no word from the environment minister in Harare. The story will be embarrassing for China at a time when it is basking in praise over its announcement of a coming ban on ivory working and retail sales.
Why selling elephants is a problem
At the CITES Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg last year members of the African Elephant Coalition – a 29-member grouping of African states opposed to any trade in ivory or the export outside the continent of live elephants – attempted to get the CITES regulation changed to limit exports to relocation inside Africa and to ban exports to other continents. It was opposed by southern African states and China and did not get sufficient support to go to a vote. Instead a US compromise proposal was passed tightening the export regulations and attempting to ensure that ivory or horn from exported live animals did not enter the illegal trade system.
One of the concerns raised by NGOs and wildlife activists about the export of live elephants to China is that they will at some stage be farmed and their ivory harvested to be sold at a huge profit. This fear was expressed by conservationists when news about Zimbabwe’s most recent debt-settling plan emerged.
There is also concern that animals go to zoos with poor welfare records or where cruel methods will be used to make the animals into little more than circus performers.
Zimbabwean ministers and wildlife officials have for years defended the regular sale of elephants and other wildlife to China. They have justified it by saying they need to reduce pressure of numbers in over-stocked reserves and raise funds for conservation. But there is no proof that the money raised goes back into conservation and clearly using elephants to settle military-related debts does little for conservation.
The official Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority website justifies live exports as a means of sustainably supporting conservation and reducing pressure of numbers on eco-systems. Over-population of elephants, in particular, can damage habitats, put pressure on other vulnerable species and lead to conflict with local communities, whose crops may be damaged or destroyed.
But while a conservation case may be made quite cogently for limiting numbers, the export of live animals seems more related to profit than sustainable use conservation. And the fate of live animals exported is also being questioned. There are reports that, when the young elephants were being captured in Zimbabwe, 37 were caught but only 35 were sold to China because two died soon after capture.
The Zimbabwean Minister of the Environment, Water and Climate, Oppiah Muchinguri-Kashiri, strongly advocates the sale of animals to raise money. But she doesn’t appear to have a strong grasp of the facts of conservation and the trade in animals or their products. This is evident in how adamant she was that Zimbabwe could sell its ivory stockpile to China despite the CITES decision.
Nevertheless, Zimbabwe is forging ahead with planned sales to raise desperately needed cash. Reports from the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force in September 2016 said that the Zimbabwe Wildlife Department was capturing animals to meet an order from China for 130 elephants and 50 lions.
In January last year the minister defended past sales and said they would be continued. In the previous six months Zimbabwe had sold 100 elephants to Chinese zoos at a cost of $40,000 each.
It is very clear that Zimbabwe’s environment minister and wildlife authorities have no qualms about the questionable trade in live animals. They are willing to sell animals to Chinese zoos and safari parks, some of which have less than spotless records for animal welfare and are barely distinguishable from circuses.
One destination for Zimbabwean elephants is the huge and widely criticised Chimelong Wildlife Park, which includes a circus and stages a variety of dubious performances and stunts involving its animals.
It is hard to draw a clear line to show where justifiable sustainable-use and sheer exploitation for profit begins. But it is clear that Zimbabwe and China have crossed that line.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.