In late November, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force reported that several animals had been captured inside the Hwange National Park, including seven lions, 10 sable antelope and 34 baby elephants. The group’s original report stated that the animals were bound for sale in China, though Zimbabwe’s Environment Minister has disputed this claim.
The ZCTF was notified of the captured animals by tourists and local Zimbabweans who witnessed the animals being taken in Hwange. Allegedly, the group saw a helicopter hovering over a herd of elephants while shots were fired to impel the elephants to run. The baby elephants who could not keep up with their mothers were then rounded up and taken back to a Capture Unit seven kilometers from the Park’s main camp.
ZCTF investigators confirmed the elephants were being held in the Unit and estimated that the 34 were between the ages of two-and-a-half- and five-years-old. “The security there is very tight,” the group wrote in their report. “[Investigators] were told that the animals will be sent by container trucks to Maputo in Mozambique where they will be transferred to a livestock sea freighter and sent on to China.”
Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe’s Environment Minister, told Radio Dialogue that this is false. The elephants will not be transported to China, he said, but to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
“Our elephants are not abducted,” he told the program, “but we have an arrangement where the animals are going to Dubai. Is there a problem with that? These abductions claims are lies.”
Kasukuwere also said that it is normal for wildlife to be captured in Hwange and exported “from time to time” and that claims of abductions were made with “racist intentions.”
For elephants, a highly intelligent animal, forcible separation from the herd can be intensely traumatic – for baby elephants, this takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Juvenile elephants are entirely dependent on their mother’s milk until the age of five. Without their mothers, the babies can become overcome with grief and rapidly starve to death.
This practice is not illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which allows the trade of wild elephants for zoos, commercial purposes and even “personal” reasons.
“We know capture of wildlife is happening for sale,” Colin Giles, a member of Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe, told the Telegraph, “as the country is so desperately broke.”
In an email to National Geographic, David Coltart, a Zimbabwean senator with the Movement for Democratic Change (which opposes President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF party), said that “[the] government is desperate for foreign exchange and revenue.
“Furthermore, we have seen such rampant abuse of our wildlife in the last 14 years that this would be consistent with [what] the ZANU PF Government has done during this period […] There is very little ‘wildlife management’ left in Zimbabwe. Whilst there are dedicated individuals in national parks, wildlife has been plundered by a predatory regime.”