Wildlife watchdog put to shame after experts say baby elephants sold to ‘perfect’ China zoo violated rules
Tracey Keeling
23rd November 2020

Zimbabwe sold 32 baby elephants to China in October 2019, after tearing them away from their wild families in 2018, for the latter country’s use in zoos. The transaction was very controversial and criticised by many, including fellow African countries.

Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates such trade addressed the situation. In a press conference ahead of the export, she characterised the likely Chinese destinations for the elephants as “perfect” and “good”. Her description was based on what she’d heard from Zimbabwean authorities and the watchdog’s previous leadership.

Now, filmmaker and author Karl Ammann has secured footage of the young elephants in a zoo facility in China. The Canary has sought an assessment of the footage from a number of wildlife experts, including an elephant specialist with 37 years of experience. None of them consider the elephants’ current predicament ‘perfect’ or ‘good’. In fact, they argued that the situation these “sentient, intelligent, cognitive” beings are currently forced to endure is a “dramatic negative change in their welfare” – evident in the heartbreaking signs of stress they’re exhibiting that will cause them to suffer “throughout their most likely significantly shortened lives”.

n short, the overwhelming reaction to the footage was that this isn’t an ‘appropriate or acceptable’ destination for the elephants at all – which is the very standard that the watchdog is meant to uphold.

Rule change

As The Canary previously reported, Zimbabwe exported the elephants to China just before the watchdog implemented a landmark rule change that would have made the sale near impossible.

Until 2019, a number of African nations could fairly easily sell elephants to non-African countries. That year, however, parties to CITES – which are nation states – voted to change the rules. The definition of what constitutes an ‘appropriate and acceptable destination’ for export of African elephants was limited to “in situ” conservation programmes, with a couple of exemptions. Simply put, the change means that African elephants now mainly have to stay in Africa.

“Perfect” and “good”?

Zimbabwe shipped the 32 young elephants to China just before that rule came into force. Responding to a question from South African journalist Adam Cruise ahead of the export, Higuero explained that she’d visited the elephants in Zimbabwe. She said the authorities there:

explained to me the process that they [the elephants] go through, that the veterinarian and the management authorities, and the scientific authorities, go to China to visit the places there, the destinations that they will have…. They understand that they’re in perfect conditions. I know that the [previous CITES] secretariat… has been able to visit some of these destinations in China and have said they have them in good conditions.

However, CITES parties Burkina Faso and Niger submitted a report to CITES’ Animals Committee this summer. In it, they argued that Zimbabwe had contravened prior provisions of CITES with the sale. Because before the 2019 rule change, countries could only export an elephant to ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’ that are “suitably equipped to house and care for it”. Furthermore, the scientific authorities for both the importing and exporting country had to be “satisfied” that the export ‘promotes in situ conservation’, i.e. conservation in the place the elephant comes from. In the report, Burkina Faso and Niger said there was “no publicly available evidence” that any of these conditions were met.

Biotech company-run elephant venue

Now, Ammann has secured footage of some of the elephants at a facility run by a biotech company called Pingnan Xiongsen. A 2016 article in the Guigang Daily described the company as “a biotechnology limited company integrating breeding, research and development, brewing, pharmaceuticals (health products), tourism and hotel services”.  Essentially, it breeds lives that should be wild, such as tigers, lions and bears; it makes money off the animals in its care via tourism; and it produces Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), including some made of animal parts.

The Guardian reported in 2007 that Xiongsen has also persistently lobbied for an end to China’s official restrictions on using tigers in TCM. As The Canary recently reported, the breeding, trading, and consumption of tigers – in TCM, food and decorative items – is widespread in a number of Asian nations despite any on paper restrictions.

The company used to run a venue called Guilin Bear & Tiger Mountain Villa. Ammann says that has since closed but it’s opening a new facility, which is where it’s housing the elephants.

Not up to CITES standards

The Canary approached elephant expert Dr Marion GaraiBorn Free‘s head of policy Mark Jones, and biologist and conservationist Ian Redmond for comment on the footage. Both Garai and Redmond asserted that the venue does not qualify as an ‘appropriate and acceptable destination’ as per the CITES rule. Jones said the conditions were “wholly and utterly inadequate” and would cause the elephants to suffer “throughout their most likely significantly shortened lives” if their situation doesn’t change.

Jones made clear that Born Free concurs with the 2019 rule change that wild-caught African elephants forced to endure CITES-authorised trading and relocation should stay in Africa, specifically in legitimate “conservation programmes or secure areas in the wild”. He noted that the exemptions to that CITES rule are if a transfer to an ex-situ situation provides “demonstrable in-situ conservation benefits for African elephants” or is a temporary transfer in an emergency situation. But he argued:

It is our strong view that a Chinese zoo or other captive facility would not meet either of these exemptions.

The bottom line is that there is no captive facility that is suitable for a wild-caught African elephant, in our opinion.


The commentators raised numerous, specific concerns about the elephants’ predicament.

All three were troubled by the young elephants being bereft of their families or adult companionship. Jones said elephants of their age would, as “socially complex animals”, live in extended family groups in their natural state and rely on that group for “stability, safety and learning”. Similarly, Redmond stated:

All of them appear to be around the same age – about four years give or take a few months – at which age they are emotionally dependent upon their mother and would not normally stray far from her care. Being captured would have left them traumatised (and their mothers grieving the loss).

Meanwhile, Garai, who is a trustee of the Elephant Reintegration Trust and has sat on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group since 1994, said:

Elephants are sentient, intelligent, cognitive animals. Young elephants require older females to teach them everything about being an elephant and acquiring social skills and coping mechanisms.

It makes me furious that this was allowed by CITES.

She added that there is “no excuse” for tearing away young elephants from their mothers and putting them “into such an inadequate facility” for entertainment.

Stressful and barren

The elephants are also showing signs of stress. Redmond said they all “seem to be secreting fluid from the temporal gland, which suggests they are stressed”. Garai flagged this fluid too and pointed out that the “constant swinging of the trunk and touching the body is a sign of nervousness, frustration, and stress” in the elephants.

Jones noticed other “stereotypic behaviours” of stress in the elephants, such as “swinging their heads from side to side”. Garai further asserted that a number of them exhibited nervousness, and added:

One of the elephants has the ear edges turned forward, also a sign of bad condition and not seen in wild elephants.

The complete lack of enrichment for the elephants in the enclosures was a repeated criticism. Both Garai and Redmond described the elephants’ environment as “basic”, while Jones said:

elephants would normally spend a good deal of time investigating their surroundings and browsing, but there’s nothing for them to do in this environment

The small space, for a species that would ordinarily roam extensively, was also seen as inadequate.

“A dramatic negative change in their welfare”

Additionally, Jones said that the concrete flooring was “inappropriate”, as “elephants in captivity notoriously suffer from foot and limb problems as a result”. He further noted the lack of water for bathing, lack of places for the elephants to hide from view, and apparent wounds on the lower front of one of the calves forelimbs – which he said is “presumably from ropes/chains”.

Garai described the outside enclosure and house behind it as giving a “poor, neglected impression”, with the latter having “no proper windows for light”. She also said:

The loud blaring music is totally inappropriate as elephants have excellent hearing and constant noise is known to be a great cause of stress to animals.

Redmond argued that, as these elephants were snatched as babies from their families and homes, their current situation represents “a dramatic negative change in their welfare”. He said they should be:

returned and rehabilitated into natural habitat within their species’ historical range – perhaps restoring elephants to habitat from which they have been extirpated in recent decades. Then they can spend the next 60 years playing a role as a keystone species, helping to sequester carbon and disperse seeds in globally important ecosystems, rather than a life of boredom and social deprivation for human entertainment.

The Canary contacted CITES for comment. It had not responded by the time of publication.

“Horrific constant negative experiences”

According to Ammann, Xiongsen took in 12 of Zimbabwe’s shipment of young elephants, with the other 20 souls going to Longemont safari park. He says one of the elephants at Xiongsen has since died. Garai said she’s not surprised by the young elephant’s death as “these youngsters have gone through horrific constant negative experiences and stress from the moment they were torn away from their mothers”.

Ammann has been looking into the negative experiences elephants – both African and Asian – face in captivity for years. His investigations into the trade in elephants for the tourism industry – and the unspeakable cruelty it involves – is the subject of his upcoming film Stolen Giants.

As The Canary has previously documented, most captive elephants used in tourism, particularly in Asia, face a training process called pajan to make them compliant. Their ‘keepers’ (mahouts) routinely beat, starve, stab, chain, and physically ‘crush’ them to ‘break their spirits’. The process is so violent and inhumane that Save the Asian Elephant’s CEO Duncan McNair told The Canary around half of the elephants who endure it die as a result.

In Stolen Giants, Ammann also reveals that the captive elephant industry regularly involves illegality, bribery, elephant disappearances – and vast profits.

What is the point of CITES?

Yet CITES has permitted a legal trade in captive elephants to exist for years, including via exemptions to trade restrictions for zoos and the like under certain conditions. Meanwhile, as Stolen Giants documents, the illegal trade has flourished under its watch. Its 2019 rule change should, in theory, save many African elephants from captivity in non-African countries going forwards. Unfortunately, the change will do nothing for endangered Asian elephants, who number less than 40,000 and are heavily exploited in the tourism trade.

CITES could take action over the 32 young Zimbabwean elephants exported to China in 2019. Especially in light of the growing consensus that their current situation is neither appropriate or acceptable, i.e. the sale was potentially in violation of the rules. Under the Convention, parties are “obliged… to provide for the confiscation or return to the State of export” of any individuals – CITES calls them “specimens” – who are “traded in violation of the Convention”.

Ammann too argues that the authority should force the return of these elephants to Africa for “rehabilitation and care in a wildlife sanctuary”. As the filmmaker appropriately pointed out in a Daily Maverick article by Don Pinnock about Stolen Giants::

If it’s unable, or unwilling to take such action, then really, what’s the point of it?

Featured image via CITES / YouTube and Karl Ammann

Original article: https://www.thecanary.co/exclusive/2020/11/23/wildlife-watchdog-put-to-shame-after-experts-say-baby-elephants-sold-to-perfect-china-zoo-violated-rules/