THE decision by the regulator of global wildlife to impose a near ban on sending African elephants to zoos abroad drew an angry response from Zimbabwe and it did not come as a surprise.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at a meeting in Geneva last month voted to tighten rules on animal trade.
Zimbabwe, a key exporter of baby elephants, voted against that resolution.
Zimbabwe is home to the second largest elephant population – 84 000 jumbos – in the world after Botswana.
Zimbabwe’s ongoing sales of baby elephants have been shrouded in secrecy, but conservationists believe hundreds have been shipped to Asian zoos since 2012 and more could be on their way.
While countries took part in the decisive CITES vote for a clause prohibiting the transfer of all African elephants caught in the wild to captive zones, 37 baby elephants were already being held at a game reserve in Zimbabwe waiting to be airlifted to China and the United Arab Emirates.
In May, after years of denying that the trade was taking place, the government announced that between 2012 and 2018, Zimbabwe had sold 97 baby elephants to China and Dubai, raking in US$2.7 million. .
The country’s wildlife authority, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks), said the proceeds would be used to support its conservation efforts.
An individual elephant sale price can reach as high as US$100, 000 and animal rights activists say that sales of the animals are often misrecorded.
Zimbabwean animal rights activist Sharon Hoole is among them. Hoole, who uses online platforms to campaign against the capture of baby elephants for shipping to Asia, believes 114 have been sent to Chinese zoos alone since the trade began.
“Since 2012, authorities have sold 114 elephants to Chinese zoos along with other species such as giraffes, buffaloes, lions, leopards, hyenas, antelopes, and crocodiles,” Hoole said.
She says it is likely that only a fraction of money realised from the sale finds its way into the national coffers, hence the secrecy.
That means some proceeds from the sales are likely not being declared to authorities, and are simply going into some people’s pockets.
When proceeds are not fully declared to revenue authorities, Zimbabwe loses potential revenue worth millions in foreign currency that should be returning to state coffers.
ZimParks manages the export of elephants but critics say sales are not transparent.
“The wildlife trade in its entirety is a multibillion dollar industry and (government officials) have been stealing for decades while keeping people in the dark,” Hoole said.
In 2016, Zimbabwe said it will start selling wild animals such as elephants, lions, impalas and zebras in what it called a de-stocking measure to alleviate drought effects.
The government did not put out any tenders for sale of these animals in that period or organise public auctions, raising further suspicions the transactions were opaque.
ZimParks spokesperson, Tinashe Farawo, said the country was not selling baby elephants but “sub-adult elephants” to raise funding needed to maintain game reserves in the absence of government funding.
“We have to drill boreholes for the animals to drink. Hwange National Park, which has more than 50 000 elephants runs 100 percent on borehole water,” Farawo said.
Farawo said the elephant exports were transparent and ZimParks was audited each year by the Auditor General’s office. However, he refused to state how much money was realised from the sales or to even state the price of one elephant saying “that can be accessed online.”
According to Global Financial Integrity, the price of a live baby elephant on the black market in 2017 was as little as $7,000 in some countries, such as Thailand. Animal rights activists such as Hoole have established that each elephant from Zimbabwe was bought for $100,000.
Hoole said the amount covers the cost of capturing, quarantining and flying the animals to either China or Dubai.
“Part of money they are receiving is being siphoned off to pay military suppliers of government goods that is leather goods such as boots and other items,” she said.
Hoole believes at least one privately owned company, which has a partnership with ZimParks, Eagle Italian Leather (a Marondera based tanning company), is involved in the export of baby elephants, albeit clandestinely.
“These are produced and supplied by a company called Eagle Italian Leather owned by an Italian man and a Chinese woman. “This woman is the only person in Zimbabwe who has a permit to sell live elephants in China.”
In 2007, ZimParks announced that it had struck a deal with Eagle Italian to produce leather products and Eagle Italian has been supplying the national army with combat boots.
According to Conservation Action Trust, Song Li, owner of Eagle Leather, has a share in Chinese zoos, safari parks and circuses and because Zimbabwe has no money to pay for the boots, she forecloses the debt in exchange for wildlife.
The UK’s Daily Mail has also previously reported Song, who is described as a “powerful Chinese businesswoman” is involved in the export of wild elephants from Zimbabwe.
Song, however, told CITE that she had “nothing to do with that” before hanging up abruptly. Efforts to contact Eagle Italian were unsuccessful as phone calls to the company were not returned.
Zimbabwe maintains it must be allowed to sell live elephants and its ivory stockpiles to fund its conservation activities while president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, even threatened to pull out of CITES.
“We are sitting on ivory stockpiles worth US$600 million. It’s a lot of money we can use for big projects. Our wild animals are being discussed in Geneva, an irrelevant place to the animals. We now know what to do about the issue,” said the president during the CITES convention.
Farawo, the ZimParks spokesperson, said CITES’ decision to ban sales was made by people “in air-conditioned offices” including some “who had not even seen an elephant” or been affected by the impact of the animals on their crops.
“Go to Tsholotsho (a district around Hwange), the villagers don’t even want to see elephants.
“Early this week a man was killed by elephants in Kariba Town,” he said.
But conservationists say they will continue to fight for transparency. A group of animal rights activists have now resorted to launching a court case against the government and petitioning Parliament demanding transparency in the sale of baby elephants.
The court case, which is yet to be heard, seeks to stop the shipping of the 37 elephants, which activists say were captured on behalf of Chinese zoos.
Activists, as argued in court papers, say the government “wantonly spurned any efforts to release the information into the public domain and to avail same to applicant.”
According to papers filed at the Harare High Court by The People and Earth Solidarity, the government refused to release information that would promote transparency on the trade.
Lenin Tinashe Chisaira, a lawyer representing the activists said they first wrote to ZimParks on February 26, 2019 requesting details on the sale and translocation agreements the government agency has with the Asian zoos.
ZimParks responded a month later acknowledging that indeed elephants were sent to Asian zoos, but ignored demands for information on the number of elephants sold and their value.
The groups now hope the court will compel the authorities to release the relevant information.
Jim Justus Nyamu, a prominent Kenyan activist, who last year walked from East Africa to Botswana via Zimbabwe raising awareness on the declining elephant population, said beyond concerns about transparency, the shipping of the animals’ raises a lot of questions.
“The animals live as a family and by moving them, you destabilise their family unit,” he said. “When an elephant baby is unwillingly taken and detached from its family, the herd will experience trauma.”
He added that the financial value of baby elephants varies from country to country. “Transactions are based on a gentleman’s agreement between buyer and seller. CITES has not placed a value on animals because it wants to protect the species,” Nyamu said.
Government has said it could not comment on the price of elephants shipped abroad.
Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, this month told Parliament that government did not receive foreign currency receipts from previous elephant exports and could not comment on behalf of previous Environment ministers no longer at the helm.
His sentiments added to the lack of transparency on how elephant sales were conducted.
This story was produced by CITE. It was written as part of Wealth of Nations, a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. More information at www.wealth-of-nations.org. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.