Animal rights group the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA) on Thursday issued two statements — and justifiably so — berating wildlife authority ZimParks” conduct during the capture, storage and sale of live baby elephants. Unnamed officers from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) allegedly prevented ZNSPCA inspectors from examining the conditions under which at least 35 young elephants held in captivity for export at Umtsibi in Hwange were living.
A few of them (actual number unknown) were later shipped out surreptitiously in crates from the Victoria Falls Airport, allegedly under a Saudi-registered cargo plane to an unknown destination. It’s unclear how much each elephant costs, but the figure runs into several thousands of dollars.
Under the The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (19:09), the inspectors, which are appointed by the State, have free course to assess animal welfare at any premise throughout Zimbabwe. Their obstruction is an offence attracting jail of up to six months, it says.
The Act also “provides for the care of animals in captivity, which applies when any wild animal is removed from the wild and is held within a boma, transportation cage or similar restraining device.”
“We are saddened to learn of the exportation this afternoon of an unknown number of young elephants to an undetermined destination by ZimParks,” the ZNSPCA lamented in a press statement on October 24.
“Over the last week ZNSPCA Inspectors have made repeated attempts at gaining access to the ZimParks Game Capture Unit located at Umtsibi in Hwange National Park. All attempts were unsuccessful as there were specific instructions to deny entry to our Inspectors,” it added.
The animal lobby group further stated: “We understand a high degree of secrecy and lack of transparency surrounded this particular shipment of young elephants. Sadly, these young elephants were loaded under extreme temperature conditions with no apparent concerns given as to their welfare. We question the sanctioning of such an operation given the heatwave Zimbabwe is currently experiencing…”
Relations have not always been as sour. In 2016, the ZNSPCA and ZimParks collaborated in determining the (un)suitability of various facilities in China that were due to receive Zimbabwean elephants.
Following comprehensive inspections of the sites in China, the two entities, operating under a joint taskforce set-up by Government, concluded that “the inspected facilities were not yet ready to receive elephants and that further inspections would be required before any animals could be shipped.” It is not clear whether any other inspections were done after that.
The taskforce was set-up by former Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri Kashiri, as part of efforts “to regulate export activities involving live animals.”
Now, “the lack of transparency, clandestine nature of this shipment and failure by ZimParks to uphold the rule of law” is a self-defeating experiment. Should ZimParks wish to avoid courting unnecessary controversy, then transactions of this nature ought be done transparently.
Clandestine trades provide critics with the ammunition they desperately crave, while creating doubt in the minds of neutrals.
The temptation is for the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to go under the radar, perhaps in an attempt to escape public attention in light of the restrictions imposed by the global wildlife watchdog CITES on live African elephant sales.
However, the alternative is more plausible. Zimbabwe has a long history of exporting live animals around the world. And it is now common cause that the country has been fighting for the ban on raw ivory trade to help raise money for elephant conservation.
No message could better communicate Zimbabwe’s righteous resolve to benefit from its wildlife resources than maintaining full transparency in the capture, storage and trade of its young elephants.
Such bold openness would no doubt attract some critics. More importantly, however, it would generate the debate necessary to keep this conversation alive – a platform for the ZimParks to continue to engage while affirming and arguing it’s case publicly without a sense of guilt drawn from unnecessary secrecy.
By keeping inspectors away, the authority creates the impression that it has something to hide — or that it were doing something completely illegal, which might not necessarily be the case. Indeed, past ZNSPCA inspections had established that the elephants in captivity had been provided with adequate shelter, food and water, although they showed signs of stress.
But the latest turn of events is undoubtedly a public relations nightmare, which could have been avoided by careful planning. Now, the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is even more damning in its assessment of ZimParks’ intentions with live baby elephants.
The society claimed to have laid a criminal charge against a senior ZimParks manager from Hwange for alleged obstruction while an urgent chamber application to the High Court is understood to have been lodged.
“ZNSPCA remains gravely concerned as to the obstruction, secrecy and lack of transparency on the part of ZimParks,” it said in another statement.
“The total disregard for animal welfare and the rule of law are a worrying development. We hereby call for a full-scale investigation into the conduct of ZimParks and its officers by all relevant authorities,” it added.
There are over 80 000 elephants in Zimbabwe, twice as much as the country can carry, according to official data.
Selling the excess elephants is thought to help eliminate competition and conflict for limited resources such as water, forage and habitat between the animals themselves, and with humans.
By degrading forests and destroying plant species, elephants are directly challenging the social and environmental dynamics in rural areas, which share borders with conservancies or national parks.
This is particularly grievous, occurring at a time when communities, already on the margins of society, have to contend with the dangerous impacts of climate change such as water scarcity and severe crop losses.
Forest degradation impacts negatively on climates at a micro-level. Carbon stocks depreciate, greenhouse gases emissions escalate and temperatures rise.
Livelihoods for communities that depend on forests for income generation or food are disrupted.
Live animal sales represent the most appropriate, logical and efficient strategy to address existing national imbalances in biodiversity conservation – but only when conducted with full transparency.
God is faithful.