The Barbaric Capture of Baby Elephants for Zoos in China Shocks the World

In a recent article for the BBC, George Monbiot quotes the words of the pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” These words have a particular resonance to those of us engaged in what sometimes seems a losing battle to save the world’s dwindling populations of elephants, rhinos, and other large mammals.

In a developing scandal, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) has reportedly captured several dozen baby elephants for export to zoos in China and possibly also the Middle East. 

According to Zimbabwe Conservations Taskforce director Johnny Rodrigues, the elephants are between two-and-a-half and five years old and are being sent under conditions of tight security by container trucks to Maputo in Mozambique for transfer to a livestock sea freighter bound for China.

In a further twist it is reported that Australian Hank Jenkin, a former top official from CITES, which is supposed to regulate the global trade in endangered species, is now working as a consultant to procure “hundreds” of elephants for Chinese zoos and safari parks. Sadly, this is not the first report I have heard of the supposed gamekeepers of CITES turning poachers.

Are these baby elephants “ivory orphans” taken as they stand grieving at the bloody corpses of their mothers and sisters? Or were they dragged forcibly from their mothers, or stolen away in the night? We do not know.

But whatever the circumstances of their capture we can hardly imagine the physical and emotional torment these animals will suffer: confined, alone and frightened on the long voyage to China.

Elephants are among the most intensely social of all large mammals. Elephant mothers suckle their young for five years, which means that many of the elephants bound for China, some as young as two-and-a-half years old, were not physically prepared to be separated from their mothers.

But the emotional bond between mother and offspring lasts much longer. Elephant researcher George Wittemyer reports how a female elephant is still intimately bonded with her ten year old daughter. Bonds between sisters can be just as strong: Juvenile female African elephants are often fascinated with newborn calves; they help out in caring for them, and will even suckle them.

Adult elephants form deep bonds with each other, which last for decades. According to Cynthia Moss, founder of the world’s longest running elephant research project at Amboseli, these bonds play a vital role transmitting communicating social and ecological knowledge from one generation to another.

Elephants take care of the sick and comfort the dying. The film Echo tells the story of Eli who was born deformed and survives because of the love and attention he gets from his mother and sisters who would not leave him behind.

My own research has involved decades of delight in getting to know elephants – and discovering that it is a two-way street: the elephants get to know me as well. They remember the looks, smells and sounds of researchers. And even now, I am still continuously surprised by their intelligence and thoughtfulness.

Recently I watched 66 year old grandmother Barbara guard her sleeping granddaughter from the feet of playful youngsters, then position her body to cast a shade from the scorching sun. The group could not move on until the 5 day old baby had rested.

To call these behaviours “almost human” only reveals the unlimited arrogance of our own species. Scientists can study elephant behaviour, and we can all marvel at it. But we can never know, and cannot even begin to imagine the profound underlying emotional and spiritual bonds among elephants.

If you think the baby elephants in the photos look sweet, you cannot imagine just how sweet they look to a mother elephant, or the anguish she feels when her calf is stolen from her.

Zimbabwean officials have defended their actions by saying that the export of live elephants is not illegal. It should be. Thankfully many countries around the world are now taking action to prohibit elephants from being held in zoos and circuses. But China stands apart from this wave of change and seems to be going backwards.

Likewise, Zimbabwe’s actions ignore lessons that have been learned long ago in other countries. The practice of taking baby elephants, once common in South Africa, was banned there when the results of research in Kenya were presented to the authorities and convinced them of the horrific psychological suffering and trauma involved.

The driving spirit behind Zimbabwe’s actions may well be President Mugabe, who is on record on more than one occasion as saying that Zimbabwe’s wildlife “needs to start paying dividends”. Another top official put it more bluntly: “We are not interested in wildlife… we want cash.”

As a counter-argument, conservationists often point out that the most profitable use of wildlife is to leave it where it is, where it can generate sustainable incomes from wildlife tourism.

I have made these arguments myself, and will no doubt continue to do so. But as I reflect on the plight of these baby elephants and the suffering of their families, I ask myself: why do we have to commoditise the natural wonders of our planet? 

Why can we not simply live and let live, and be content with the privilege of sharing our world with these marvellous fellow creatures?

It is sometimes said that elephants are like humans. Maybe. But what is certain is that we humans need to learn to be more like elephants. 

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