Animal welfare campaigners fears that baby elephants in Zimbabwe could be being secretly sent to Chinese zoos before a ban is introduced next month.
The concerns have been raised after footage showed a 30-strong herd held in captivity in Hwange National Park – almost a year since they were snatched away from their natural habitat.
An agreement to ban elephant exports from Zimbabwe and Botswana was agreed at the August meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangerd Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).
However the ban doesn’t come into play until November 26 leading campaigners to fear Zimbabwe will export the elephants before the deadline.
According to the CITES, Zimbabwe has previously exported 108 young elephants to zoos in China since 2012.
Fears for the welfare of the last 35 elephants increased in February this year when Humane Society International/Africa (HSI/Africa) revealed footage of them squeezed into the small pens in Hwange National Park
All were wide-eyed with ears splayed in a defensive posture and with dark streaks down the side of the face which is an indicator they are stressed.
They are all under the age of six and according to HSI/Africa two are being bottle fed which means they have not been weaned properly off their absent mums.
A source told campaigners that Zimbabwe Parks and Wildfire Management Authority have applied for visas for the elephants while Chinese officials have arrived at Hwange National Park to make preparations for the exportation.
A Chinese businesswoman who allegedly brokered all previous exports is claimed to have been been around the park.
Campaigners say the elephants have been held in captivity for too long to be set back into the wild but they could be rehomed in a sanctuary where they can mix with older females to develop their social and well being.
Elephant experts and wildlife protection groups across Africa have called for the exportation plans to be axed and for all future captures to be stopped.
Audrey Delsink, elephant biologist and wildlife director at HSI/Africa, said: “We are extremely worried about the fate of these elephants.
“In the wild, calves remain closely bonded to their natal family groups, with females never leaving their families and males only leaving at 12 – 15 years of age.
“To forcibly steal away these baby elephants from the wild is utterly barbaric, both for them and the grieving families they leave behind, but to compound that by condemning them to captivity in China will be a life sentence of suffering.
“If Zimbabwe goes ahead and exports these animals for captivity despite the CITES ruling, it will show an appalling lack of respect for international conservation and wildlife protection law.
“The Zimbabwe government has a small window of opportunity left to put morals before money and allow these young elephants to live amongst their own kind again in a sanctuary, and to stop any such future captures.”
Lenin Chisaira, environmental lawyer at Advocates4Earth added: “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 centred on the welfare and trading of these elephants.”