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.