On August 26, 2019, the conservation and animal welfare community celebrated a win for elephants at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species 18th summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Member states decided by majority vote that African elephants may no longer be removed from their natural or historic range in Botswana and Zimbabwe and exported to foreign, captive facilities, except under “exceptional circumstances.”
The definition of these “exceptional circumstances” has yet to be determined, but such circumstances would need to meet the approval of the Convention’s Animals Committee and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group. Despite concern that this could provide a possible loophole, the Convention’s new rule establishes a near-total end to the trade in live wild elephants to captivity in zoos and circuses, as the Convention’s parties, representing 183 nations, agreed that these venues are generally not acceptable or appropriate destinations for wild-caught elephants.
Long before the Convention’s historic vote, the 32 member countries of the African Elephant Coalition called for an end to the export of live elephants to captive facilities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Elephant Specialist Group stated that it does not endorse the “removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use … believing there to be no direct benefit for in situ conservation of African elephants.”
Celebrations Abruptly Halted
Despite the Convention’s vote, 32 wild-caught elephants were moved from holding pens at Hwange National Park and flown out of Zimbabwe to China on a cargo plane on October 24. These elephants were originally torn from their families during a capture operation in October 2018 from Hwange by the Zimbabwe Parks and Management Authority. The calves were held for more than a year at Hwange before being clandestinely exported ahead of the Convention’s ban taking effect on November 26.
Don’t be fooled. This was not simply a one-off export. Since 2012, the Zimbabwean Management Authority has exported 141 juvenile elephants to ex-situ (outside of natural range) facilities in China and Dubai. Swaziland also has a history of wild-caught elephant trade, exporting 11 wild elephants to the United States in 2016. However, Zimbabwe is by far the largest exporter of live elephants to overseas destinations, according to the Convention’s trade database.
The Zimbabwean Management Authority stated that it made over US$3.2 million after the sale of 101 baby elephants to China between 2016 and 2019. It stated that the proceeds would be used to “capacitate the authority’s conservation activities,” adding that approximately US$3,253,225 was spent on the procurement of Toyota Land Cruiser vehicles, allegedly for the day to day running of the organization and game parks.
However, Zimbabwean citizens are largely not supportive of live elephant capture and exports. Lenin Chisaira, an environmental lawyer from Zimbabwe-based Advocates4Earth, filed an interdict to try to stop the exports in May 2019. Earlier in 2019, Chisaira—supported by several Zimbabwean environmental and conservation groups such as the Zimbabwe Elephants Foundation, Voices for African Wildlife, Tikobane Trust, Sibanye Animal Welfare and Conservancy Trust, Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Youth Biodiversity Network—initiated a parliamentary petition on wildlife trade transparency. Chisaira said:
The secrecy around the ongoing capture and trade of Zimbabwe’s wildlife exposes lack of accountability, transparency and a hint of arrogance by Zimbabwean authorities. They seem prepared to go ahead despite global outcry and advice. They also seem keen to go against local pressure, and local legal processes considering the case we launched early this year which is centered on the welfare and trading of these elephants.
Despite the overwhelming support by Convention parties for the near-total ban, several Southern African Development Community nations threatened to leave the Convention because their leaders believe the live capture and export of elephants falls under principles of sustainable use, which is their “sovereign right.” However, this would actually make their trade-in Convention-listed species with other Convention party countries more difficult as they would be treated as non-parties. As for any wild-caught calves that are currently in captivity, they appear to be in limbo. Trading in those elephants now would definitely be counter to the spirit of the amended resolution.
Human and Elephant Societies Have Much in Common
If you have ever had the privilege of watching wild elephants, you probably already know that elephants are far more like us than appearances would lead one to believe.
Neuroscientists assert that elephants have brains and ethical capacities comparable to humans. These enigmatic mammals are long-lived (up to 60+ years), highly social and intelligent, living in matriarchal herds of related family members and their offspring. Female elephants stay with the herd into which they were born their entire lives, while males leave at 12-15 years of age. These young bulls then join up with others to become “Askaris” (apprentices) and fit into the highly complex bull hierarchy. Older, independent bulls then link up with unrelated herds for reproduction.
Baby elephants, or calves, are completely dependent on their mothers, other family members and mature bulls to acquire necessary social and behavioral skills. The presence of mature bulls suppresses musth—a state of heightened sexual and aggressive activity in male elephants—in younger bulls, who would otherwise become “juvenile delinquents,” manifesting deviant behavior in the extreme.
Moreover, disruption of close-knit family bonds is physically and psychologically traumatic for both calves and the rest of their herd. The negative effects can be severe and lifelong. The capture and captivity process is rarely mentioned by the businesses that exploit these animals for entertainment. Terms such as “harvesting” and “culling” when discussing elephant population control are used to create distance between humans and animals to discourage empathy.
What Really Happens During the Capture of Wild Elephants?
Elephant calves caught in the wild are not “rescued” as orphans or caught because their herds were slaughtered or even because they were doomed to die due to drought. They are captured for people’s entertainment. As shown in footage reported by the Guardian, elephants are deliberately targeted based on their size, age and ease of transportation.
A helicopter is dispatched to find a suitable herd. Once the animals are located, the pilot swoops down, putting tremendous pressure on the animals until they are forced to split into smaller groups—usually cow-calf groups who will try to stick together at all costs. A veterinarian will dart the calf with an immobilizing agent, and eventually the calf will succumb. As elephant mothers are known to defend their calves in the face of danger, additional scare tactics must be deployed to drive her away. Once the animals are immobilized, a ground crew moves in, loads the calves on waiting vehicles and takes them away. Often, distraught family members will come back and try to help the immobilized calf. If they are persistent, they may be shot to ensure the ground crew’s safety.
Once removed to the holding pens, the next harrowing chapter of being trained for captivity in circuses or private menageries begins. With no adult females to look to for reassurance, guidance and learning, one can only imagine the youngsters’ distress. In the last-known footage taken of the Zimbabwean calves, shot just days before their export to Shanghai, the elephants show signs of stress such as temporal streaming (dark streaks down the side of the face from the temporal gland) and demonstrating wide-eyed, ear-splayed defensive postures.
Cellphone footage of the exported calves in an undisclosed holding facility in Shanghai reveals the shocking reality that they now face: isolation in rows of steel cells with concrete floors, with signs of suffering and even wounds on some of the animals.
In 2017, Humane Society International, where I serve as a wildlife director in Africa, co-authored a report highlighting the challenges that the newly captive and motherless elephants face. The report states: “captured calves transported to holding facilities suffer depression, lethargy, anxiety, increased stress, intraspecific (between individuals of the same species) aggression, and a diminished or non-existent appetite, sometimes resulting in death or contributing to premature mortality. Training in temporary facilities may include food and/or light deprivation, restriction of movement, forcing the animal into an uncomfortable position for extended periods of time, and regular beatings.”
Earlier this year, 55 elephant specialists sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stating that elephants adapt poorly to life in captive facilities. They have shorter lifespans than wild populations, breed poorly, if at all, with a 40 percent infant mortality rate, and are unable to express natural behaviors or form natural social groups. Furthermore, the letter states that captive elephants often display behavioral abnormalities, and tend to die of diseases and disabilities caused by captive conditions, such as arthritis and foot disease.
The letter rejects a common argument made by Zimbabwe and others that live export alleviates local population pressure and spares elephants from being culled or dying from natural causes, such as drought. These captures do little to reduce populations locally, and more effective, humane alternatives do exist:
- Relocation of elephants to other protected parks within the elephant’s natural range.
- Range expansion of current protected areas.
- Employment of immunocontraceptive fertility control in females. In South Africa, immunocontraception programs have been deployed for more than 20 years, and have been demonstrated as an effective tool for population control with more than 1,000 elephant cows treated in 28 reserves across the country.
Is Captivity Better Than Nature?
As an elephant biologist who has studied these magnificent animals in their natural habitats, I believe that elephants should remain in the wild with their families, under Mother Nature’s hand of ecological flux of boom or bust. All that awaits these elephants in captivity is a life of monotonous deprivation in private menageries or circuses.
According to the European Elephant Group, currently 156 zoos have closed their elephant facilities given welfare concerns. Elephant scientists released an urgent plea calling on Zimbabwe, China and other countries considering exporting or importing wild-caught elephants for captive use to abide by the new Convention ban.
Sarah Kasbeer, a New York-based essayist and consultant for the NGO Voices for Asian Elephants Society, writes, “As our understanding of the animal psyche evolves, so must our definition of what ethical treatment looks like.”
If we know better, we must do better; the trade of wild-caught elephants to zoos is inexcusable and must stop.