Zimbabwe’s government has admitted capturing baby elephants for export to the United Arab Emirates, despite warnings from conservation groups that taking them away from their mothers could kill them.
Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, told the Telegraph it was normal for wildlife to be captured in the country’s largest game reserve and exported “from time to time”.
But he denied reports that the animals were destined for Chinese zoos, saying they were destined for the UAE.
“We have sent our vets there to look at conditions,” he said.
Claims that 34 baby elephants, seven lion cubs and 10 rare sable antelope were rounded up for sale to China surfaced this week among wildlife charities in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said visitors to the park had witnessed the capture of elephants aged between two-and-a-half and five years old by government helicopters and ground teams, who roped them together after separating them from their mothers by firing shots above the heads of the herd.
The Telegraph has since obtained photographs of an unknown number of baby elephants being held in wooden pens in a compound administered by Zimbabwe’s parks authority in the western Hwange National Park.
Zimbabwe’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it was urgently investigating the alleged sale.
“We are trying to speak to those who we believe brokered the deal and check on the welfare of the captured animals,” Ed Lanca, ZNSPCA’s chairman, said.
Their export is connected with a massive shortfall of resources for the government-run wildlife authority, which is tasked with protecting Zimbabwe’s 10 national parks and dwindling wildlife.
Last year, ZNSPCA rescued five young elephants taken from their families in northwestern Zimbabwe. The same year, three baby elephants were sent to China. They survived the journey but one died shortly afterwards and the other two are reported to be in poor health.
Elephants live in highly social, matriarchal societies, and babies are fully dependent on their mother’s milk until at least five years of age, often pining and dying if they are taken away from them.
Colin Gilles, a member of Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe who is also part of a volunteer team which counts elephants in the park, said elephant exporting was not illegal but unethical.
“Surely the exporters would not send babies? If they are too young they can’t be released back into the wild as they will not survive,” he said.
“We know capture of wildlife is happening for sale as the country is so desperately broke.”