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Mr President: Selling wild-caught baby elephants to China is just plain evil

Elephant calf mistreated after capture in Zimbabwe

Footage from the capture of the elephants in Zimbabwe © The Guardian

Opinion post: Written by Simon Espley, CEO of Africa Geographic


Attention: Your excellency Emmerson Mnangagwa, president of Zimbabwe

As another shipment of wild-caught baby elephants from Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe jets out of Victoria Falls airport on Ethiopian Airlines to zoos and private collections in China, it’s surely time to call this for what it is: Just plain evil.

This is not a conservation or ‘sustainable utilisation’ issue – the removal of this quantity of elephants will certainly not impact significantly on wild elephant populations, or alleviate the claimed pressure from ‘too many’ elephants on vegetation in Hwange. This is also not about what is permissible under CITES regulations.

No, this is quite simply about people in positions of authority abusing their power to do each other favours. This is about return favours between high level people in Zimbabwe and China – “you approve this transaction and I will throw in a few baby elephants for your entertainment” sort of thing. These baby elephants are trinkets on the arms of people who do not care about brand Zimbabwe or the dignity or well-being of individual creatures.

For further information about the impact of this practise on individual baby elephants, read this post: Helpless baby elephants to head for Chinese zoos.

If you are not well-advised on how elephants fare in zoos, this quote is from Peter Stroud, the former curator of the Melbourne Zoo from 1998-2003, who was involved in sourcing elephants from Thailand:

“There is now abundant evidence that elephants do not and cannot thrive in zoos,” Stroud says. “Young elephants will never develop naturally as socially and ecologically functioning beings in zoos. They will face a very long and very slow process of mental and physiological breakdown resulting inevitably in chronic physical and mental abnormality, disease and premature death.

Moving aside from the moral issue, does it make business sense to endanger your tourism industry, just to keep this barbaric practise going? Zimbabwe is a beautiful and diverse country, with good wildlife populations, fantastic lodges and warm, welcoming people. If you have any doubt about how the world of safari goers feels about this practise of selling baby elephants to zoos, why not ask them? Use social media to reach out – and ask them. Then get clever people to quantify the negative response into likely ongoing loss of tourism business. You decide if the cost is worth the supposed benefit.

If hugely important commercial and political agreements between Zimbabwe and China are dependent on baby elephants being tossed in as by-products, then perhaps you need to ask yourself just how serious China is about Zimbabwe in the first place.

Mr President, your recent rise to power provides a unique opportunity to rid Zimbabwe of this cancer – this morally bankrupt notion that everything is for sale – even baby elephants. Perhaps it’s time to give this issue your attention, and to take action? Zimbabwe’s tourism industry would certainly benefit if you took action and drew a line in the sand. Please, Mr President.


Simon Espley

Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. His travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. He lives in Cape Town with his wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working he will be on his mountain bike somewhere out there. His motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". The views expressed in his posts are his own. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

  • Freedom

    I agree anything that is exported to Asia or the far east is Simply EVIL.This nation China and surrounding countries(Thailand ,Philippines,Vietnam,Cambodia,Taiwan etc)are well known for their cruelty to animals.Never mind that they eat anything and everything that crawls or walks,excepting themselves.

    • Gareth Davies

      ABSOLUTELY concur. I have photographs of the monkeys SKINNED ALIVE by the Chinese in Zim.

      • Freedom

        That goes for dogs and cats too.This race is sick,I have never seen such cruelty as I have seen from the Asian race.

  • Geoffroy Mauvais

    Another risk that may seem ireealistic for now (?) is that this population of babies elephant serves the creation of farms that will “generate” tusks in the long-term. Even if it’s a few, even if it’s in decades… as China has just banned the trade of ivory, there will be a need to create a “local and legal production” that will serve to cover a grey market mostly fuelled by poaching in Africa in fact. We should not underestimate the plans of a country used to think in the very very long run. China has got time.

    • Jo Loveland

      No – what we need is for people to realise that the possession of ivory doesn’t make them any better or more invincible than anyone else. What we need to do is change the consumer mindset. It’s been done before.

      • Freedom

        Jo the consumer here,are the very people where these elephants are going to.The chinese have no conscience or compassion,for anything living,even their own children.

        • Jo Loveland

          I think I didn’t make my position clear enough – I am against the creation of farms and the idea that that’s the road China or any other country needs to go down. We need to stop the demand and the only way to do that is to educate the consumer in conjunction with cutting off supply by poaching or any other means. I agree that the majority of Asian countries seem to indulge in unspeakable cruelty to animals – but let those who live in glass houses not throw stones. Unspeakable cruelty to animals happens in every country on earth and no nation is lily white.

          • Marcia Mueller

            Educating people to stop doing things that bring them profit or pleasure is easier said than done. Even trying to stop stupid and reckless behsvior is difficult. Look how many years we have been trying to educate people not to drink and drive or to take drugs.

          • Jo Loveland

            I agree, it is a big ask and won’t be done in 5 minutes…but progress is slowly being made, which is why we must never give up.

    • Gareth Davies

      You are spot on. China is going to breed these animals. Rather like the inbred tragic lions that are bred for canned hunting. The Chinese are unbelievably devious!

    • Freedom

      Geoffroy,my stomach turns at the thought,these slant eyes don’t miss any opportunity to make a quick buck,or eat any rubbish they deem is good in any way.

    • BSzasz

      Western zoos are now impregnating females as early as age 3 !!! This means that the zoos can get calves out of their herds before the poor conditions of captivity kill them. Because their ailments like foot rot and arthritis are relatively slow to develop.
      The ivory from most of the “unneeded” males could be taken whenever they want, depending on whether they are breeding for size or quantity .


    Humans are just too cruel. and greedy and ignorant . they do not respect nature and just use it for their profits and enrtertainments. those babies will die form lack of motherly care. The mothers distress will not be taken into account either as she will attack humans in revenge.

  • Y. Reed

    Dear President Mnangagwa,
    Return Zimbabwe’s dignity by bringing to justice the people, operators and officials who are benefiting from the sale to China, of baby elephants.
    These animals belong to ALL of Zimbabwe, not a few greedy, ruthless money hungry criminals.
    The money, baby Elephants, plus justice, restoration of Zimbabwe’s good name must be returned to your good people, so that Zimbabwean’s can hold up their heads in the world arena and with pride say …… “see, we did it!”.
    People around the world are watching and waiting.
    It is in your power to stop this – please, step up and be counted for all the people of Zimbabwe.

    • Freedom

      I just pray and hope the new president is not going to carry on where Mugabe left.

      • Y.Reed

        I believe in the power of prayer, but at this 12th hour we need to find out which park, which park officials and which minister authorized the permits.
        Surely only then, can social media be used to be constructive in our help?

  • Jhm0699

    Peter Stroud is so correct that elephants cannot thrive in zoos. The average lifespan of a zoo elephant is a mere 40 years. That’s only a little more than 1/2 the normal lifespan. These dozens of babies being sent to China are doomed to a lifetime of misery and with the abuses in China will live less than 40. I get physically ill thinking about all those babies.

    • Freedom

      It is also well known that animals in captivity struggle to breed.I can’t imagine what awaits these poor animals once they reach their destination.

      • Wheretonow

        Probably going to become their ivory farm. Then they can say they are not breaking the ban on ivory!!!

  • Whattheh***

    OF COURSE IT IS EVIL – but that will not stop it from happening. People are being treated in inhuman ways, and not much is done about that, so.. if we imagine that there will be lots of care about animals and their plight – then we are all completely insane. As long as you have greed in this world very little of support from governments can be expected, especially in Africa. Lots of lip service and nothing else!

  • Rupert Pitt

    I hope the President of Zimbabwe will not allow the transport of baby elephants to China its cruel.

  • Ann


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