Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations H.E. Mr. Ma Zhaoxu
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative


We, the undersigned, are a group of thirty-five global specialists in elephant biology, husbandry, elephant management, legal and policy analysis, economics and conservation, most of whom are based in Africa.

We present our compliments to the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations and His Excellency.

We are deeply concerned about the reportedly imminent import of some 33 juvenile wild-caught elephants from Zimbabwe to captive locations in China. Our concerns are based on our understanding of elephant biology, of international agreements and national legislation as well as public sentiment within Africa and more widely.

We urgently call on the President of the People’s Republic of China to immediately suspend and ultimately cancel the plans for this import.

We would greatly appreciate it if you could urgently forward our concerns and this letter to the President and the relevant authorities for action.

China has recently made significant strides as a conservation champion, especially through its dedication to the ‘Ecological Civilisation’ programme and subsequent leadership decision to terminate domestic legal ivory markets.

1. This has contributed to a laudable and growing reputation of China as a new champion of conservation, especially towards saving African elephants. However, the sale of baby elephants forcibly removed from their mothers and families (estimated at over 100 since 2012) in Zimbabwe to be sold to China has brought denunciation even from those who are typically in favour of so-called ‘sustainable use’.

2. For China to continue importing live elephants that have been removed from their families would cause significant risk to your country’s hard-won conservation reputation.

1 Xuehong Zhou et al., “Elephant Poaching and the Ivory Trade: The Impact of Demand Reduction and Enforcement Efforts by China from 2005 – 2017,” Global Ecology and Conservation 16 (2018),
2 Somerville K, ‘Why Zimbabwe’s use of elephants to pay off old debt to China is problematic’, 8 January 2017,, accessed 10 October 2019.

The rationale offered by Zimbabwean authorities for justifying the sales does not bear up under scrutiny. It is not an effective population control method and can in fact exacerbate human-elephantconflict, particularly as repeated captures have occurred within the same population. Removing baby elephants from their families is increasingly recognised as an ethically and ecologically unacceptable practice. It is universally recognized that elephants are wide-ranging, vastly intelligent, sentient beings with a highly organised social structure including strong family bonds that can last a lifetime. Elephants also have basic needs for stimulating ecological and social environments, and for the freedom to exercise choice over their foraging options and companions. These needs cannot be met under captive conditions and elephants so deprived inevitably suffer from physical and mental pathologies. At the same time, it is known that removal of elephants from their social groups and ecosystems is very disruptive to the wild populations, while having extremely traumatic and long-lasting effects on the psychological well-being of the juvenile elephants removed from their families.

3. Young elephants are dependent on their mothers and other family members to acquire necessary social and behavioral skills. Male calves only leave their natal families at 12 to 15 years old and females remain for life. Disruption of this bond is physically and psychologically traumatic for both the calves and remaining families and groups and the negative effects can be severe and lifelong.

4. The well-documented symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) displayed by captive elephants in zoos around the world are testimony to the damage caused by the operations of capture and long-distance transport to such ex situ locations.

A 2017 expose revealed footage during capture, confirming concerns that the elephants are subjected to harsh and cruel treatment to force them to submit to human dominance.

5 In February 2019, further video footage of young calves (some as young as two years) showed the youngsters frantically pacing around the Hwange pens, with some showing signs of stress such as temporal streaming (dark streaks of secretion down the side of the face from the temporal gland) and others demonstrating wide-eyed, ears-splayed, chin-up defensive postures.

6.  According to a paper submitted by the Governments of Burkina Faso and Niger, presented at the 69th meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES SC69) in Geneva (Switzerland), 27 November – 1 December 2017, “captured calves transported to holding facilities suffer depression, lethargy, anxiety, increased stress, intra-specific aggression, and a diminished or non-existent appetite, sometimes resulting in death or contributing to premature mortality. Training in temporary facilities may include food and/or light deprivation, restriction of movement, forcing the animal into an uncomfortable position for extended periods of time, and regular beatings

7. Based on the body of overwhelming scientific evidence, South Africa took the commendable decision in 2008 to ban the capture of elephants from the wild for the purposes of captivity and trade under the terms of the National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa (2008). The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission African Elephant

3 G. A. Bradshaw and Allan N. Schore, “How Elephants Are Opening Doors: Developmental Neuroethology, Attachment and Social Context,” Ethology 113, no. 5 (2007): 426–36,; Graeme Shannon et al., “Effects of Social Disruption in Elephants Persist Decades after Culling,” Frontiers in Zoology 10, no. 1 (2013),; Rob Slotow et al., “Older Bull Elephants Control Young Males,” Nature 408, no. 6811 (2000): 425–26,; G. A. Bradshaw et al., “Elephant Breakdown,” Nature 433, no. 7028 (2005): 807–807,

4 Shannon, G., Slotow, R., Durant, S. M., Sayialel, K. N., Poole, J., Moss, C., & McComb, K. J. F. i. Z. (2013), Effects of social disruption in elephants persist decades after culling. Frontiers in Zoology, 10(1): 62. doi:10.1186/1742-9994-10-62 zimbabwe-for-chinese-zoos pens/

Specialist Group opposes the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use.

8. This position was reaffirmed at the group’s meeting in Pretoria, South Africa in July 2019. On 6 September 2019, elephant specialists from around Africa and the world participated in an Indaba in South Africa, ‘Taking Elephants out of the Room’, to scrutinize the science, policy and welfare issues related to elephants in captivity. The overwhelming conclusion of the Captive Elephant Indaba was that no new elephants should be placed in captivity and elephants currently in captivity should be rewilded.

9. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), African elephants from countries on Appendix II listing (currently Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) may be exported only to ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’. In August, the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) agreed that ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’ for African elephants taken from the wild are defined as in situ conservation programmes or secure areas in the wild, within the species’ natural and historical range in Africa10. Exemptions are foreseen only in exceptional circumstances where, in consultation with the CITES Animals Committee and the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, it is considered that a transfer to ex situ locations will provide demonstrable in situ -conservation benefits for African elephants, or in the case of temporary transfer in emergency situations. This decision, with its basis in elephant biology and welfare, was accepted by an overwhelming (greater than two-thirds) majority of Parties at CoP18. It is clear that Zimbabwe and any other exporting country that are party to CITES are obliged to respect this decision.

Globally, public sentiment is running against the keeping of this iconic African species in captivity. Previous exports of more than 100 wild elephants from Zimbabwe to China generated considerable backlash amongst the public both within China and across the world, and continued actions in this regard will damage the reputation of China as a legitimate voice in nature conservation. The proposal for the re-definition of ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’ was led by the African Elephant Coalition, which includes over 30 African range and non-range States. The AEC based their arguments on elephant biology but also on the important cultural and social-ecological value of elephants living in their wild ecosystems. We support the right of these African states to speak for elephants within their natural range.

It is recognized that elephants already in captivity in Africa require careful treatment in order to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into wild habitats. These methodologies are now established and there are a number of options for returning the elephants to appropriate sanctuaries and reserves.

We call on the government of China to act in accordance with elephant biology, international and national legislation, and widespread and ever-increasing worldwide public opinion, to terminate plans for this elephant import, and to allow the captured elephants to be returned to their only ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’, the natural habitats of Africa. elephants-captive-use

Should additional information be required please address this to: Ms Michele Pickover, EMS Foundation

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of our highest consideration. Yours sincerely,

Dr Brett BardVeterinarian, South Africapage4image550398160 page4image550338080
Suparna Baksi-GangulyPresident & Co-Founder
Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Center, Bangalore, India
Dr Lucy BatesIndependent Elephant Specialist – Social Behaviourpage4image551553296 page4image551554720
Professor David BilchitzUniversity of Johannesburg, South Africa
Director, South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law Director, Animal Law Reform South Africa
Dr, Dr Gay BradshawFounder and Director, Kerulos Center for Nonviolence USApage4image551581488
Carol BuckleyDirector, Elephant Aid Internationalpage4image551588320 page4image551590288
Megan CarrVice-President, Global March For Elephants and Rhinos
Lenin ChisairaAdvocates4Earth – Green Law Connect, Zimbabwepage4image551604912 page4image551606336
Adam CruiseEditor, African Elephants Journal
Audrey Delsink, Ph.D. CandidateElephant Ecologist and Wildlife Director, Humane Society International (Africa)page4image551623184 page4image551624608
Catherine Doyle, M.S.
Director of Science and Research Performing Animal Welfare Society, USA
Nomusa DubeFounder, Zimbabwe Elephant Foundationpage4image550865840
Chief Stephen FritzMembers of the South Peninsula Customary Khoi Council, South Africapage4image509582880 page4image509584304
Dr Marion GaraiChairperson, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group Trustee, Elephant Reintegration Trust
Petter GranliExecutive Director, ElephantVoicespage4image550886752
Dr Ross HarveyWildlife Economist, South Africapage4image550879584
Dr Michelle HenleyDirector, Elephants Alive!, South Africa
Elephant specialist Advisory Group, South Africa
Lynne JamesMutare SPCA, Zimbabwepage4image550909216
Dr Paula KahumbuWildlife Direct
Advocate Jim Karanipage4image550914992
Lawyers for Animal Protection in Africapage5image551502304 page5image551504912
Dr Winnie KiiruFounder, Conservation Kenya
Kahindi LekalhaileAfrica Network for Animal Welfarepage5image562193200 page5image562184432
Dr Keith LindsayConservation BiologistAmboseli Elephant Research Project, Kenya
Dr Smaragda LouwBan Animal Tradingpage5image551487472 page5image551489488
Linda MasudzeAdvocates4Earth, Zimbabwe
Brett MitchellDirector, Elephant Reintegration Trustpage5image552837760
Dr Cynthia MossDirector, Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Kenyapage5image552821088 page5image552818144
Michele PickoverDirector, EMS Foundation, South Africa
Dr Joyce PooleCo-Director, ElephantVoices, Kenyapage5image553287632 page5image553289104
Dr Yolanda PretoriusSouth African Wildlife College Elephant Specialist Advisory Group
Ed StewartPresident and Co-Founder, Performing Animal Welfare Societypage5image553305888
Peter StroudIndependent Zoological Consultant (Former Zoo Director & Curator), Australiapage5image553315808 page5image553316688
Antoinette Van De Water, Ph.D. CandidateDirector, Bring The Elephant Home, South Africa Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, South Africa
Amy P. WilsonDirector, Animal Law Reform South Africa (ALRSA)page5image553337776 page5image553339200
Professor Dan WylieRhodes Universitypage5image553344608 page5image553346960

Image: Zimbabwe Elephants – Mongabay