More than thirty baby elephants, torn from their mothers in the wild in Zimbabwe almost a year ago, embarked on a new journey of captivity and suffering this week when they were flown to China, where they are expected to spend the rest of their lives in zoos or circuses.

Humane Society International/Africa had been tracking the babies since we received news in February that they were being held in an enclosure in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. When we told you about plans to transport these calves — all under six years old — 7,000 miles away from their home, many of you joined us in expressing outrage. For months we had been supporting local groups in the hope of stopping the export, and just recently, we had acquired footage of the young animals eating dry branches and walking around a small water hole in the enclosure, called a boma.

As soon as we learned of plans that the elephants would be flown out of the country this week, the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, supported by HSI/Africa and Sibanye Animal & Welfare Conservancy Trust, filed urgent papers in Harare High Court. The groups were seeking to force the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to allow them to assess the welfare of the elephants – an effort the Authority had rebuffed in the past, and that might have stopped the shipment. We were dismayed to learn the transport had happened the same day.

This is heartbreaking news. As Audrey Delsink, wildlife director of HSI/Africa and an elephant biologist, told me, the life that awaits these elephants in Chinese zoos and circuses will be one of deprivation and suffering, and as far removed as can be from the life they would have led in the wild. Elephants are extremely social animals and in the wild they live in large family groups. Forcing them into loneliness and lifelong captivity leads to immense psychological distress and deprivation — a fate these gentle giants do not deserve. We are working with advocates in China to track down the whereabouts of these newly arrived elephants and will closely monitor the situation on the ground, including the welfare of the juvenile animals.

Zimbabwe’s rush to export the baby elephants also appears to have been motivated by a landmark vote in August at the meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), where member countries imposed a near-total ban on the capture of wild African elephants from Botswana and Zimbabwe for export to zoos. That rule, which Zimbabwe fought tooth and nail, takes effect after November 26, so it appears that the Zimbabwean authorities arranged to ship out these young elephants before the deadline. The African Elephant Coalition, an alliance of 32 African countries, had also called on Zimbabwe to end the export of wild elephants to zoos and other captive facilities.

African elephants, who face extraordinary threats from poaching for ivory, trophy hunting and habitat loss, are currently listed as a threatened species, with less than 500,000 remaining in the wild. In 2017, the Great Elephant Census found that the population of elephants in Zimbabwe had declined six percent overall between 2007 and 2014, and the drop was as high as 74 percent in some regions in the country. Removing elephants from the wild and sending them to be exploited in foreign lands causes unnecessary suffering and destabilizes the population on multiple fronts.

It’s too late for these baby elephants, who are now condemned to a lifetime of trauma, and for the 108 other elephants the country has exported to China since 2012. Before Zimbabwe can do more harm to its remaining elephants with actions like selling them for hard cash for short-term benefit, we are calling on the country to keep them on African soil, at home, to bring in millions of tourists and bolster the country’s economy in the long run.

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