I have been intimately involved with elephants for over 50 years, both living alongside them for 30 years in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park and, as I continue to do today, hand-raising orphaned infant elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Nursery in Nairobi National Park.
Presently we are raising 29 orphaned elephants at our Nursery, with a further 60 graduates of the Nursery being reintegrated back into the wild at our three reintegration units in Tsavo East National Park. In time, all of these orphans will reclaim their birth right, a wild life and in doing so, they will join more than 90 orphaned elephants that the DSWT has successfully hand-raised through infancy, all now living amongst the wild herds in Tsavo.
I have been fortunate to live so closely with the species, affording me an unrivalled insight into their behaviour, intelligence, social patterns and psyche. This particularly pertains to the bond between mother and child, and the emotional impact on an infant elephant in being separated from its mother. Whether this separation is more often than not, the direct result of human actions. Elephants are orphaned for all manner of reasons and sometimes we cannot know the exact reason a child has been separated from its mother; however what is blindingly apparent to me from my time with orphans is the immense emotional trauma suffered by a baby elephant when it is separated from its mother.
My team of carers must replace the orphan’s lost mother and provide the calf with a sense of family, humans and the other elephants in our care being an orphan’s surrogate family. It can takes days, weeks, months for a calf to come to terms with the loss of its mother, as it mourns in the same way as a human child would grieve when losing a parent. Elephants are amongst the world’s most intelligent species and they exhibit a wide range of human traits including those associated with grief, learning, play, compassion, self-awareness, caring and memory.
In my years raising orphaned elephants, I have seen physically healthy calves give up on life. Having witnessed the killing of their mother for her ivory, they have lost the will to live, refusing food and milk, standing in isolation from other elephants, unable to find the willingness to socialise. In humans we would likely describe this as a deep depression and for these calves it is the emotional pain of having seen their mothers killed and no longer having their mother’s love and support that leads them to give up on life and eventually pass away.
From all I have observed and experienced in my time with infant elephants, I can categorically say that elephants should not be confined in captivity and to learn that a reported 34 elephants, aged between 2 ½ and 5 years have been torn from their families and placed in holding pens, ultimately to be shipped as a commodity to zoos and circuses in the United Arab Emirates, China and France is heart breaking. To tear an elephant baby from its mother is morally irreprehensible and the emotional trauma and suffering of both mother and calf is impossible to contemplate, witnessing a stranger enter one’s home, pick up ones child and run off with it, never to be seen again. For the baby elephants abducted endure fear, grief, panic and all manner of emotional trauma related to such forced separation.
The emotional trauma to mother and calf is beyond repair for the 34 elephants abducted in Zimbabwe nor for their elephant mothers. Only through extensive, long term rehabilitation, providing 24 hour care and support will these infants have a chance to come to terms with their ordeal and overcome the damage by the wildlife authority that tore their lives apart.
Reportedly held in capture units outside Hwange’s main camp, these infant elephants will be experiencing uncontrollable fear and without a matriarchal figure to guide and reassure them, that fear will only escalate. The separation and capture of these calves is tragic, the prospect of them then being shipped to zoos or even circuses in far flung countries is an outrage. Not only is there an exceptionally high risk of death for these infants during such an arduous journey, for they will be in an extremely fragile state, what awaits them at the other end is a lifetime of captivity, and a lifespan on average less than half
what it would be in the wild. Elephants do not live a fulfilled life in captivity; poor diet, limited space, isolation and stress all combine to shorten their life expectancy as compared to their wild kin. These are animals that mirror humans in terms of emotion, age progression and longevity, and above all, they need their family, their friends and space. There is no zoo in the world that can provide elephants with the space they need for a quality of life. Confining these animals, in isolation or even in pairs, is sentencing them to life imprisonment. A sentence that in human society we reserve for our worst criminals.
The kindest action a human can take for a captive elephant is to give it elephant companionship and the same tender loving care they would experience in their natural elephant family.
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Background and DSWT Opinion
In December 2014, conservation authorities in Zimbabwe confirmed, after weeks of speculation, that up to 60 baby elephants were to be captured alongside other wild species, for export to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France and China “as part of conservation efforts” (Geoffreys Matipano, Bloomberg interview). 34 infant elephants were captured at that time. Since then, only the UAE has confirmed its intention to import elephants from Zimbabwe but the transfers remain on the agenda and the elephants continue to remain confined to a small boma at the Mtshibi Capture Unit, in Hwange National Park.
In the context of domestic and international law, the capture and planned sale is entirely legal. However, at a time when the wholesale slaughter of elephants for the illicit ivory trade has been well documented, killing up to 36,000 elephants year, it is understandable that many people have asked:
How wild elephants can be ‘legally’ torn from their families, for onward international sale to zoos?
The Zimbabwean government has shown no remorse or concern for its actions, which is not unexpected as their plans are legal, however shocking that may seem. To understand how an act many would consider morally reprehensible is legal, one has to consider two things:
1. The alleged endemic corruption at the heart of Zimbabwe’s political elite
2. The failure of CITES to act in the interests of the welfare of wildlife in since it regulates trade
1. The endemic corruption at the heart of Zimbabwe Political Elite
In the wake of a global conservation backlash, Zimbabwe’s officials have sought to justify the sale of the captured elephants “as part of conservation efforts” and an effort to reduce over population. In an interview with Bloomberg, Director for Conservation at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authorities, Geoffreys Matipano, stated that “We are pursuing it aggressively as part of conservation efforts because we have plenty of elephants here ... We don’t receive state funding and we rely on selling animals for our day to day operations, we are nowhere near what we want.”
In terms of conservation funding, it is clear that Zimbabwe’s wildlife tourism industry, which in any other country would typically generate income for the conservation of its wildlife, has been in substantial decline. As Zimbabwe’s international reputation for human rights and political abuses has grown, its numbers of tourists have fallen – this has likely been heightened as of 2014 when the U. S Fish and Wildlife Service put in place a temporary ban on the import of wildlife trophies including elephant ivory, citing that additional killing of elephants in Zimbabwe, even if legal, is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that contribute towards the recovery of the species.
As with many nations, Zimbabwe believe wildlife must generate an income to have a place – if wildlife tourism isn’t doing that, then selling the wildlife to the highest bidder seems the government’s chosen approach. According to Geoffreys Matipano, Director for conservation at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authorities (Bloomberg), the government can look to generate up to US$3.6 million from the sale of 60 baby elephants. This is an exceptionally short sighted view, especially given recent research that has shown that during its lifetime, a single elephant can deliver $1.6million in tourism (iworry report – Dead or Alive, http://iworry.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Dead-or-Alive-Final-LR.pdf ). Rather than seeking investment and time, the Zimbabwe Government’s approach appears to be to treat its wildlife in the same way it does minerals mined from the ground: on sale to the highest international bidder to fund state programmes.
Taking Zimbabwe’s reasoning for the sale, on the first point, as a tool for conservation, the capture and sale of wild animals to fund conservation programmes is at best illogical and at worst, morally reprehensible. By conflating the live trade in wildlife with conservation funding, Zimbabwe is setting a dangerous precedent that could later drive more illegal trapping of wild animals for sale to the highest bidder. With more and more wild elephants and animals caught to fund conservation programmes, this flawed approach does little to reassure the conservation community that Zimbabwe’s elephant populations would be any safer after the sale. Knowing that elephants are amongst the world’s most intelligent species and what we do about the effect culls can have on herd dynamics, it is clear that the forced removal of family members can only have a detrimental effect on the psychological health of the herd.
When understood in the context of Zimbabwe’s endemic corruption however, the country’s claim to use the sale to fund conservation becomes even more illogical and worrying. Ranked 163rd out of 176 countries in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, a recent report by Born Free USA and C4ADS found that across Zimbabwe, wildlife range areas, including several on the United States sanctions list, are being seized by political-military elites and “revenues accrued from the wildlife concessions being seized more often than not go straight into personal and foreign bank accounts, and not towards conservation.” http://www.bornfreeusa.org/press.php?p=4223&more=1
Against such findings, and scant detailed information on how the funds will be used to conserve remaining elephant populations, there is very little confidence that funds from the sale of baby elephants will be used to fund wildlife conservation initiatives in the country.
Zimbabwe’s second reasoning for the Hwange capture is that the country is suffering from an overpopulation of elephants. Yet Zimbabwe has consistently been accused of inflating its elephant populations to pursue an agenda of trade. While the government of Zimbabwe has, in the press, referred to a population of 80,000 elephants in the country, a recent aerial surveillance survey indicates that the number is actually closer to 58,000. Looking more closely at Hwange National Park , where the infant elephants are currently being held, the Zimbabwe Wildlife and Environment Association has stated they believe there to be 25,000 elephants, while the National Parks state the numbers at 40,000.
Recent warnings about the impact of poaching on elephant populations only serve to cast a further and worrying doubt on the ‘official’ figures with “poverty, hunger [and] the entrance of connected political elites into wildlife areas” pointing to a distressing future for their elephants” (Born Free and C4ADS).
It is apparent that more definitive elephant counts are needed to gain a fuller understanding of the true population of elephants in Zimbabwe and this should certainly be the case before officials are allowed to capture and export baby elephants or claim over population.
2. The failure of CITES to act in the interests of the welfare of the wildlife in which it regulates trade
As an international agreement, CITES came into being in 1973 with its stated aim “to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival” (CITES).
As an international treaty however, implementation and enforcement of policies adopted is down to the individual signatories to the declaration. In the case of Zimbabwe’s elephants, CITES have confirmed that in accordance with Zimbabwe’s elephants listed under Appendix II (its classification of endangered wild animals) it is completely legal to the capture wild elephants, as is their sale to another country.
Zimbabwe’s classification under Appendix II means that its elephant populations are not currently threatened with extinction, but may become so without trade controls. It is up to the Management Authority of the country choosing to trade species to decide whether it would be detrimental to the species as a whole, and in countries where corruption is endemic, there is little to stop officials designating a sale as not detrimental in pursuit of financial gain. Looking at the broader failure under Appendix II, Zimbabwe could choose to sell tens of thousands of elephants, so long as Zimbabwe itself deemed this would not be detrimental on the survival of the species in the wild. As a result, Zimbabwe at no time is subject to independent oversight, international laws or even the requirement to submit any documentation to CITES. As such, they would not need to submit any trade intentions to CITES in advance of a sale, in effect, keeping the sale out of worldwide knowledge until it had completed
Prior to 1997, Zimbabwe’s elephants were listed under Appendix 1 (which would have prohibited such a sale). However, in 1997, the population was downgraded to facilitate a one-off sale of stockpiled ivory, as were elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa at the same time. In the face of known poaching and the slaughter of 300 elephants through cyanide in 2013 within Zimbabwe, reputedly at the involvement of Government officials, CITES has failed to take any measures since 1997 to reclassify the elephant populations of these nations to Appendix I.
The sale of 60 elephants from Zimbabwe is a shocking indictment of the failure of CITES to take into consideration the issue of animal welfare, especially in light of internationally accepted scientific research into elephants that shows elephants are sentient and self-aware mammals; proven to grieve and mourn. Yet, despite this, CITES has taken no steps to review its resolutions or policies in respect to the trade of live animals, seemingly leaving this at the discretion of the countries where those animals roam. As a result, as this sale of Zimbabwe’s elephants demonstrates, no conditions must be met, besides the exporting country satisfying itself that the animals are going to ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations.’ This entirely subjective language offers no guarantees or even assurances that the elephants’ welfare, at the destination country or in transit to it, shall be taken into account.
Publicly, the CITES Secretariat has voiced its concern over the illicit ivory trade, and called for greater action from Nations to tackle the trade. At the same time, it has failed to take any meaningful measures to protect elephants; it has left the door open for Nations with elephants in Appendix II to continue to lobby and press for future ivory sales and, has turned a blind eye to the ability for nations to trade elephants for commercial purposes.
Part of this is as a result of its own design. In a recent interview with Christina Russo, CITES Secretariat John Scanlon all but washed his hands on the issue of selling these baby elephants, explaining that “There's no authority under the convention and international law to stop this trade... There's no international court you can go to seek an injunction to stop an individual trade transaction. The secretariat has no authority to intervene” (National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150123-cites-scanlon-zimbabwe-elephants-china-uae-france-iucn/ ).
Secretary General, Scanlon, has also quantified that CITES fulfils its obligations as they are stated, repeatedly placing the responsibility of wildlife at the doors of countries (National Geographic). This may fall outside the remit of CITES, however only because CITES Members have chosen to ignore the importance of welfare, and as such, the present situation gives CITES no reason to intervene. For years there have been growing concerns from the global public as to the effectiveness of CITES, and the reality is, CITES is out of date and out of touch; it requires a significant overhaul to bring it into the 21st century. The illicit ivory trade, the extensive slaughter of Africa’s elephants, our understanding of the emotional complexities of elephants all point to the urgent need for CITES to overhaul its resolutions in respect of this species, and others that are quietly facing the same issues.
As an example, a court in Argentina ruled in 2014 that an orangutan could be granted some legal rights enjoyed by humans, in effect stating that the orangutan was "a person" in the philosophical, not biological, sense. Allowing elephants to be traded as commodities, not recognising these are living, breathing animals with an emotional capacity similar to ours, and in the eyes of many experts, greater than that of humans, is an indictment of CITES failure to recognise animal welfare. Should CITES be unable to bring its policies up to date or fail to address its shortfalls, then there is no question that a new international group must be formed in its place – CITES repeated statements of its inability to take action inspires little confidence.
A Suggested action plan, focused on the welfare of the baby elephants, currently being held in a capture unit in Hwange?
Based on over 35 years of knowledge and practical experience of hand rearing and protecting elephants, the DSWT is entirely opposed to the transfer of these abducted elephants to a zoo. Having already been separated from their mothers, significant damage has been done, however there is still hope of a future for these animals, that does not include them being shipped internationally and placed in zoos.
It would be a major undertaking and one that would require financial and expert input from the outset, through to the ultimate return to the wild for these babies, however it would be possible for the government to release the elephants to an orphanage situation in Zimbabwe, critically with the aim of reintegrating all abducted elephants back into the wild as soon as is possible. It is critically important that any orphanage was focused on returning the animals to the wild, because otherwise it would be a glorified zoo itself. Our experience tells us what a serious and difficult undertaking this would be, especially without a matriarchal figure to help with a transition back to the wild, however it would not be impossible. This is the step the government must consider and should the government recognise this as the best option for these elephants, which are the heritage of the people of Zimbabwe, then the global community must be ready to assist.
UPDATE: News Reports
Since the above statement was produced (January 27, 2015), new information has been reported by Christina Russo for National Geographic.
This includes confirmation from French Authorities that they had not and will not issue any import licences for captured baby elephants from Zimbabwe. In December our own contacts in France investigated the early reports about France intending to import elephants and found zero evidence to suggest there had ever been any plans for such an import.
Russo further reports that sources state that ‘more than 80 elephants are now being held in groups of ten at the Umtshibi capture facility in Hwange National Park’. Read the latest article by Christina Russo at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/02/150206-elephant-conservation-zimbabwe-culling-animals/