Greed drives elephant trade
Adam Cruise
April 24, 2015

Zimbabwe’s minister for environment, water and climate, Saviour Kasukuwere, claims Zimbabwe’s elephant population is so large it has reached double the country’s carrying capacity.

Kasukuwere would have us believe his country’s recent capture and plans to sell wild elephants, many of them babies and sub-adults, to zoos, circuses and private collections in the Middle and Far East are necessary to sustain the growing population.

“We have lots of them (elephants),” he told National Geographic. “We are open to doing business with the whole world. If you want some in London, you can have them.”

According to a paper published by Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate titled “Zimbabwe’s Position on Live Sales of Elephants and Other Wildlife Species”, the country’s 14 500-square-metre flagship national park, Hwange, holds 54 000 elephants. That, according to the paper, is probably 40 000 more than the reserve is capable of sustaining.

However, the annual waterhole count in the national park last year by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe revealed that Hwange’s elephant population was less than half the figure touted by Kasukuwere. Although the waterhole figures may not be 100 percent accurate because elephant populations are highly mobile and in a constant state of movement, dependent on environmental factors, they do give a fairly good indication as to the general size of the population.

As for other areas in Zimbabwe, a survey just released by Kevin Dunham has revealed that the elephant population in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River Valley, which includes Mana Pools, has declined by more than 40 percent over the past 13 years. This area was, until recently, famous for its healthy elephant population. And in direct contradiction to Kasukuwere’s claims that this population is expanding, the preliminary results for last year show a staggeringly sharp combined decline of 75 percent in the Matusadona and Chizarira areas.

Such is the international concern over Zimbabwe’s elephants that last April, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced the suspension of all imports of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. The primary reason for the suspension was poor management practices by Zimbabwe’s government and wildlife services that have “led to a significant decline in elephant populations”. This suspension was reviewed this week and upheld indefinitely for the same reasons.

Yet, most incriminating of all, are the figures published by the Elephant Database run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Based on aerial, ground and sample and dung counts, Zimbabwe’s total elephant population has been pegged at 47 000 individuals, which is just more than half the figure presented by the Zimbabwe government. Furthermore, the report shows there were more than 80 000 individuals in 2007, meaning there has been a drastic decline of 50 percent in five years.

The Elephant Database’s report also expressed concern that there was a serious lack of official systematic and updated monitoring data for the past decade for what used to be the third largest elephant population in Africa.

As a result, Kasukuwere is basing his figures of a total population of 88 000 elephants on speculation. His assertions that the elephant population was beyond Hwange’s or the country’s carrying capacity were also similarly tenuous.

Kasukuwere continues to contradict impartial elephant counts and ignore the international damage being done to Zimbabwe’s reputation by peddling the fiction that elephant populations were not only stabilising but burgeoning.

Zimbabwe’s official stance in support of wildlife trade also comes despite other contradictory statements by Kasukuwere that to date no elephants had been shipped overseas. Baby elephants, he maintains, have been separated from the herd and corralled because they were to be moved to other parts of the country.

“That’s a normal thing. We transfer animals from an area of greater concentration to areas of low concentration. Now and again we capture these animals to try to balance the populations.”

This assertion is disingenuous as standard elephant conservation practice allows only for transfer of family groups or mature adults.

According to the South African government’s Implementation of Elephant Norms and Standards, baby elephants rely heavily on tight family groups for their survival and would not last for long on their own, as the minister suggests.

It is therefore inconceivable that the Zimbabwean government would separate calves from cows in a bonded herd and expect them to survive much beyond the sale, if they even make it that far.

The desire to trade was confirmed again by Kasukuwere, while addressing government ministries and villagers in Hwange in mid-March. In a hot-tempered rant the minister railed against the man who had gone public with the first round of captures of baby elephants in Hwange, Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force.

Before lambasting Rodrigues as a racist and having “little understanding as a conservationist”, Kasukuwere admitted the Zimbabwean government “are being faced with a barrage of criticism since we decided to sell our animals”.

Kasukuwere appears to underestimate international concern about the plight of the captured elephants. Rodrigues’s campaign has already brought widespread condemnation. One of the countries earmarked as a buyer, France, has back-tracked on the sale. Furthermore, the condemnation is universal enough to damage Zimbabwe’s floundering tourism industry.

However, Zimbabwe seems hell-bent on pushing forward with its plans to sell elephants. In a parliamentary report obtained by Bloomberg last Tuesday, Zimbabwean lawmakers urged the country to find a way of exporting many elephants, which they say are threatening communities neighbouring Hwange. It is obvious then that Zimbabwe will sell off its wildlife, especially its elephants, in the name of profit.

“The country will realise significant revenue from elephant exports,” the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment, Water and Tourism said.

There is little doubt that if Kasukuwere has his way we will soon see hapless elephant calves in miserable claustrophobic compounds in Dubai or China, unless enough international pressure is brought to bear on Zimbabwe’s ruling party to convince them of the fallacy of their plans. With the debate already well through parliament and the baby elephants in the sixth month of captivity, the final decision to sell is imminent. It is critical therefore that everything possible must be done to stop it.