11 min read

Video Shows Men Capturing Wild Elephant Calves To Send To Chinese Zoos

“One day people will look back on it and recognize it as a crime against elephants.”

In a distressing video, a group of men sprint through the bush, searching for a young wild elephant they’d shot with a tranquilizer. In the next clip, the elephant is lying on the ground, clearly sedated, while men use ropes and a tarp to move her toward a nearby trailer.

The next part is perhaps the most upsetting — the elephant, who is estimated to be only 5 years old, is now standing in a trailer. It appears that the men want her to back up into a truck, but the elephant, who is still groggy from sedation, doesn’t seem to understand this. So men smack her and kick her in the head repeatedly with their boots, while another man yanks her backward with ropes.

“The men are trying to get the calf into the container behind, pulling, kicking and hitting it, and while she would feel that she is being battered, she would not yet be able to cry out, to struggle or respond,” Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior expert and codirector of ElephantVoices, told The Dodo. “It is like coming out of anaesthesia to find yourself being attacked and hurt, but not being able to understand or to do anything about it.”

This harrowing video was released today in an exclusive report published by The Guardian. The footage is believed to have been taken back on the morning of August 8, when officials at Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) captured five elephants, who are believed to have been transported to Chinese zoos.

While the person who supplied the footage asked The Guardian to remain anonymous, they shared as many details about the capture as they could. The first part of the operation consisted of locating a herd via helicopter, according to the Guardian report. Then people inside the helicopter shot young elephants in the herd with a tranquilizer gun. Once the elephants collapsed, the helicopter landed nearby, and a ground team hurried to find the fallen animals and move them onto trailers.

The entire process would be unimaginably stressful for the elephants. One of the hardest parts would be the elephants’ separation from their families.

Men surrounding sedated elephant
Members of a ground team work to move the sedated elephant onto a trailer | The Guardian

“Elephants are long-lived, highly social, intelligent animals with very close and lasting emotional bonds,” Poole said. “A female calf stays with her mother and with her relatives for the rest of her life, which may be over 60 years. And because elephants experience such deep attachment to one another, breaking these bonds has long-term and devastating effects on the calf — who loses everything it has ever known.”

Besides the five elephants caught that particular morning, the anonymous source told The Guardian, an additional nine elephants were caught around the same time, and this particular team from Zimparks has captured about 30 to 40 elephants in total.

Zimparks could not be immediately reached for comment.

Men dragging sedated elephant toward trailer
The Guardian

Surprisingly, capturing and trading wild elephants is technically legal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), as long as the transaction is for "noncommercial purposes.”

“For some reason zoos are considered 'noncommercial,' despite the fact that the reason baby elephants are so coveted by zoos is that they are crowd-pleasers and are great for ticket earnings,” Poole said. “CITES has very little jurisdiction over the trade in live animals for noncommercial purposes.”

After the traumatic capture process, the young elephants were moved to a secretive holding facility in Hwange National Park, the anonymous source told The Guardian.

Man kicking elephant in trailer
A man kicks the elephant in the trailer, trying to get the animal to move backwards into a truck | The Guardian

The buyer of the elephants is a Chinese national, according to The Guardian. Last year, this same Chinese person tried to export 11 wild hyenas. The animals were found in a truck at Zimbabwe’s Harare International Airport — the truck had been traveling for over 24 hours, the animals had had no food or water, and they were emaciated, dehydrated and extremely distressed, according to The Guardian.

As for the five elephants captured on August 8, it is not known if and when they were exported to China, or which zoo they ended up at. But wherever they are, Poole is certain that the young elephants have a lifetime of misery ahead of them.

“The first few days for the calves are terrifying, and it is easy to see the fear on the faces of these little elephants,” Poole said. “Then the sadness kicks in — their little faces become pinched, their skin becomes sallow and unhealthy looking. Once an elephant has been living in captivity for months and years, stereotypic and other abnormal behavior is the norm.”

Man kicking elephant in truck
The Guardian

“Elephants in captivity don’t reproduce well, which is why baby elephants are so coveted by the zoo industry,” Poole added. “Elephants have a highly social nature and [their] large social networks mean that they simply cannot thrive when held in small enclosures.”

Toni Frohoff, an elephant scientist and campaign director for In Defense of Animals (IDA), said she hopes this footage will help the public understand what many zoos are doing behind the scenes.

“The public has a right to know that such zoos are actually depleting wild elephant populations rather than contributing to them,” Frohoff told The Dodo. “Funds spent on these horrible affronts to wild elephant populations, and those spent on confining elephants in zoos in general, should instead be diverted to real conservation efforts actually protecting elephants in the wild — the only place where conservation can truly occur.”

Captured wild elephant in truck
The Guardian

This isn’t the first time elephants and other wild animals have been captured in Zimbabwe and transported to international zoos. In 2014, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force released a report that said that people had captured at least 34 baby elephants in Hwange National Park, as well as seven lions and 10 sable antelope, while other reports said that the park had exported close to 100. 

In 2015, disturbing images emerged showing wild elephants from Zimbabwe living with injuries in substandard enclosures.

“I believe the capture, shipment and trade of wild baby elephants for a life of captivity in zoos is gruesome treatment of one of our planet’s most charismatic, intelligent and social mammals,” Poole said. “One day people will look back on it and recognize it as a crime against elephants.”

You can read The Guardian’s full report here.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) helps save and rehabilitate baby elephants who lost their parents to poaching, and its ultimate goal is to release all of the animals back into the wild where they belong. To support this organization’s work, you can make a donation.