Wildlife campaigners have said they are “outraged and heartbroken” at reports authorities in Zimbabwe have sold more than 30 wild baby elephants to China, where they will endure a lifetime in captivity.
Animal protection experts at Humane Society International (HSI) said the baby elephants had already been held captive for nearly a year in Hwange National Park, but had now been flown out of the country via Victoria Falls Airport.
According to the organisation their “sources on the ground” said army trucks arrived to remove the elephants, and that ZimParks staff on the scene had their mobile phones confiscated, “presumably to stop news of the shipment getting out”.
The news comes on the same day as several animal charities and organisations, including the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, filed urgent court papers at Harare High Court in an attempt to stop the shipment to Chinese zoos.
HSI said Zimbabwe has exported 108 young elephants to zoos in China since 2012.
In a statement, the organisation noted the sale to China comes ahead of the implementation of a “near-total ban” on live elephant exports from both Zimbabwe and Botswana following a landmark vote by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The ban takes effect on 26 November, so campaigners have claimed it appears Zimbabwe is attempting to export the elephants before the deadline.
Elephant biologist Audrey Delsink, wildlife director at Humane Society International Africa, said: “We are left feeling outraged and heartbroken at this news today that the Zimbabwe authorities have shipped these poor baby elephants out of the country.
“Zimbabwe is showing total disregard for the spirit of the CITES ruling as well as ignoring local and global criticism. Condemning these elephants to a life of captivity in Chinese zoos is a tragedy.
“We and others have been working for months to try and stop these elephants being shipped because all that awaits them in China is a life of monotonous deprivation in zoos or circuses.”
She added: “As an elephant biologist used to observing these magnificent animals in their natural wild habitat, I am devastated by this outcome. These animals should be roaming in the wild with their families but instead they have been ripped away from their mothers for more than a year and now sold off for lifelong captivity.”
The apparent removal of the elephants to China comes days after more than 55 elephants died at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park amid one of the country’s worst droughts in recent years.
Investigations showed that at least 55 elephants had died from lack of food and water in the park, which holds the biggest elephant herd of 50,000 animals – three times the park’s capacity.
The Independent has contacted the Zimbabwean embassy in London for comment on the alleged sale.