Mugabe trades elephants in covert deal with China

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Picture: Getty
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Picture: Getty
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ZIMBABWE is sending baby elephants from its drought-ravaged Hwange region to two Chinese zoos under a covert deal struck by president Robert ­Mugabe, conservationists warn.

Four elephants left Harare late last month for Dubai en route to Beijing after a 12-hour journey by road from Hwange to Harare, said the head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, Johnny Rodrigues.

Hunters claim at least “a couple [of] dozen” baby elephants have been captured in an operation overseen by rangers from the state-run Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in Hwange, a vast dry park in the north-west. Up to 14 more elephants will leave in January, activists fear.

The parks authority – once seen as a bulwark of conservation until some officials were accused of involvement in poaching – is understood to have been against the deal first mooted months ago. Government vets were sent to survey the Chinese zoos and found them lacking, sources say. But President ­Mugabe is believed to have ­personally intervened. Now the authority won’t comment.

While Asian elephants may be common in Chinese animal parks, these are likely to be the first African elephants there – if they survive the trip. One of the zoos is understood to have a circus attached. “There’s a good reason why South Africa hasn’t sent elephants to China,” one animal welfare worker said.

Another activist said: “It’s been a bit of a shocker. National Parks haven’t said anything to us yet. We’ve had confirmation that they’re in China already.” It’s not clear what China offered for the elephants. But the Asian giant’s eagerness to gift money and infrastructure to Zimbabwe in return for diamond mining concessions is no secret. Gearing for a bruising election fight next year, Mr Mugabe, 88, says China is Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend”.

The total weight of the four juvenile elephants already sent is 3.9 tons, which experts say would imply they are “very young.” Yesterday, Mr Rodrigues claimed the elephants were put on an Air Emirates plane for a ten-hour flight to Dubai before being sent to Beijing. “Some elephants do not survive the stress caused by such long trips. The ones that do survive will be subjected to a life of captivity in a Chinese zoo,” he said.

The Chinese have stressed they will only take orphans and activists admit there are orphaned elephants in Hwange because of the drought, which has been exacerbated by the authority’s inability to maintain waterholes. But there are fears the exported animals are not orphans. “We believe they would just go out and dart the closest elephants possible,” said a Harare-based activist. There are also fears the elephants may be bred for ivory.

Hwange is said to host between 35-40,000 elephants, twice its capacity – with devastating effects on the terrain. Earlier this month environment minister Francis Nhema said, while he would not advocate a cull, he did not believe authorities should “baby-feed the animals”.

Sources speak of a recent operation to break up elephant herds in Hwange in which juveniles were captured. Some may be for the Chinese shipment though hunters say most would be destined for local “elephant safaris”. Those captured have to be between 1.2-1.5 metres tall. “They’ve been shooting some of the adults,” said one source. Any animal taller than 1.5 metres “can’t be trained,” he added.