As elephant specialists who are world-renowned, well-published authorities on elephant behaviour, sociality, welfare, care, and conservation, we are extremely disturbed by the actions of Zimbabwe and China with regard to live elephant trade.

At the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) held in Geneva in August this year, Parties overwhelmingly decided that the only ’Appropriate and Acceptable destination’ for live elephants exported from Zimbabwe or Botswana should be:

in-situ conservation programmes or secure areas in the wild, within the species’ natural and historical range in Africa, except in exceptional circumstances where, in consultation with the Animals Committee, through its Chair with the support of the Secretariat, and in consultation with 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.”

These amendments (Resolution. Conf. 11.20 (or Rev. CoP17) will come into effect at the end of November 2019, bringing the rules that apply to Zimbabwe and Botswana in line with other countries.

The resolution notwithstanding, in October 2019, the Zimbabwe government exported more than 30 wild-caught elephant calves that had been forcibly taken from their mothers and families over a year ago.

The operation involved elephant herds being chased to exhaustion with helicopters in Hwange National Park, with calves as young as 2-3 year-old forcibly separated from their families, captured and put into a nearby holding pen where they were kept for many months.

Despite the clear message from the international community through the CITES Resolution that such exports should end, the 32 calves were loaded onto a Saudia Cargo flight and exported via Riyadh to Shanghai, China, on 24 October 2019.

The elephants are now held in an undisclosed quarantine facility and, like previously imported calves, will most likely be sent to various facilities around the country, where they will be on display for entertainment making a total of at least 141 wild-caught elephant calves exported from Zimbabwe to ex-situ destinations since 2012.

These calves are now condemned to a lifetime of confinement far removed from their families, lacking the normal social, psychological, physical, and environmental conditions that are crucial to the wellbeing of highly intelligent animals evolved to live in a complex

social and ecological environment. Many of the calves will doubtlessly lead shortened lives; those that survive shall suffer in captivity for decades.

The conditions that the captured and exported elephants face are inhumane, cruel and unjust. The forcible capture and removal of wild elephants from their home ranges and social groups is archaic and unethical, and these exports offer no conservation benefits.

Published research shows that bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impacts their physical and psychological health and viability. Elephants adapt poorly to life in captive facilities. They have shorter lifespans and they breed poorly, if at all, in captivity. The overall infant mortality rate for elephants in zoos is a staggering 40 percent, nearly triple the rate of free-ranging Asian and African elephants.

Elephants are long-lived, social, intelligent animals who live in complex societies with extremely large social networks. They have the largest absolute brain size of any land animal. Neurological, behavioural, and cognitive studies have shown that elephants share characteristics of human brains and behaviour, displaying empathy, problem solving, emotional learning, autonomous thinking, planning and decision-making, self-awareness and self-control. As with humans, elephants have long-term memory and cognitive flexibility, and scientists have observed over 300 different behaviours, most of which involve gestural or acoustic signals of communication.

Young elephants are highly dependent for up to 15 years on their mothers and other family members for protection and learning of necessary social and behavioural skills. The disruption of their social bonds is physically and psychologically traumatic for both the calves and remaining family members. The trauma of attack, family separation, trans-continental shipping, and subsequent cruel training techniques has life-long impacts on the psyche and behaviour of affected individuals and their offspring.

The export of live wild-caught elephants to zoos also deprives the regions from which they originate of the important ecological role elephants play as ecosystem modifiers and enrichers. Africa’s savannahs and forests have lost 95% or more of their elephants in modern times, and with species loss and biodiversity impoverishment at crisis levels globally, Africa can ill afford to lose more.

Countries intending to supply live wild-caught African elephants commonly argue that live export alleviates local population pressure and spares elephants from being culled. In reality, such extirpations do little to reduce populations at the local scale. Furthermore, repeated captures are likely to stress and traumatize elephant herds resulting in increased aggressive behaviour.

Recently, China has demonstrated laudable actions contributing to the protection and restoration of species and biodiversity, taking a leading role in climate change mitigation and banning ivory trade. These efforts are undermined by China condoning and engaging in actions that go against the spirit and will of CITES and the opinion and advice of elephant scientists, ignoring every ethical aspect of animal welfare – in times where many zoos have closed their elephant exhibits and where many people no longer wish to see animals in captivity or as mere objects of entertainment.

We call on Zimbabwe, and any other country that might be considering exporting or importing wild-caught elephants for captive use, to abide by the resolution reached at CITES by an overwhelming majority of governments. We further call on China to commit firmly to put an end to all further imports of African elephants from the wild. In doing so, China would demonstrate its growing and significant contribution to global conservation.


Dr Joyce Poole, PhD., Scientific Director, ElephantVoices

Dr Victoria Boult, University of Reading (UK)

Dr Mark Jones BVSc MSc (Stir) MSc (UL) MRCVS

Dr Lucy Bates, Research Fellow, University of Sussex and Director, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group

Dr Keith Lindsay, Independent Conservation Biologist, and Collaborating Researcher, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Audrey Delsink, PhD Candidate, University of KwaZulu Natal, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group

Dr Marion Garai, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (Chair) & Elephant Reintegration Trust 

Leonard Mubalama, Lecturer and member of the IUCN/AfESG

Dr Lucy King, DPhil (Oxon), Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program, Save the Elephants

Dr Yolanda Pretorius, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (Vice Chair) & Elephant Reintegration Trust

Dr Dr Gay A Bradshaw, Executive Director, The Kerulos Center for Nonviolence

Antoinette van de Water, Director Bring the Elephant Home

Dr Vicki Fishlock, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Ian Redmond OBE, Ambassador, UN Convention on Migratory Species 

Andrea K. Turkalo, Wildlife Conservation Society

Professor Phyllis Lee, Director of Science, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Dr Michelle Henley, Director Elephants Alive South Africa 

Dr Cynthia Moss, Director Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Dr Winnie Kiiru, Founder-CHD Conservation Kenya

Dr Susan Alberts (PhD), Chair Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

Robert F. Durden Professor of Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University

David L. Kabambo, Founder and Director of Peace for Conservation 

Dr Harvey Croze, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Image: Zimbabwe Selling Baby Elephants Calves to China – Mongabay

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