This week, in a landmark decision, 46 governments voted in committee to end the barbaric practice of capturing live wild baby and juvenile elephants, mainly in Zimbabwe, for trade to zoos and circuses around the world, at the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Shockingly and shamefully, the European Union appears intent on overturning this historic decision by voting against it when it comes back to the Convention for ratification. NGOs, celebrities and government representatives worldwide are doing everything they can to sway what could be one of the most controversial decisions in wildlife history.
Originally the ban, which would apply to elephant populations in Zimbabwe and Botswana, was passed by the required 2/3 majority vote in Committee I of CITES largely because the EU was unable to vote due to a procedural issue (it had not yet filed its credentials). However, the European Union – which spoke against the ‘ban’ before the vote, and now has its credentials in order – looks set to vote against it. With its 28 strong voting bloc, if it proceeds with this decision at the CITES Parties plenary vote next week, it will condemn wild-caught elephants to a lifetime in unnatural captivity just so that zoos and circuses China, the US, the EU and elsewhere can continue to have a steady flow of live elephants from the wild.
Howard Jones, CEO of international wildlife charity Born Free, said:
“We face a knife-edge decision, on the future security of African Elephants and the rights of elephant families not to be hunted, or mothers killed while their babies are kidnapped for live trade to captivity in China, Russia and any other country prepared to pay. It’s shocking that EU nations are poised to do the unthinkable and vote against this right, which will then allow Zimbabwe and Botswana to continue this appalling trade. It can’t be right, it isn’t right, not now or ever, and the people of Europe must speak out against this horror and pull their leaders back from the edge.”
Mark Jones, Head of Policy at Born Free, added:
“Over the last 20 years, close to 200 predominantly young elephants have been forcibly removed from their families and herds in southern Africa, and shipped around the world to live miserable and often short and lonely lives in zoos and other captive facilities, predominantly in China. We have long campaigned against this heinous trade.
“The export of live, wild-caught African elephants for exploitation in zoos and other captive facilities does nothing for conservation or elephant management. Instead it causes immense suffering among both the individual captured elephants, and the family groups from which they have been taken. The international community is on the brink of taking a hugely progressive step by bringing an end to this trade from Zimbabwe and Botswana, but unbelievably the European Union could stand in its way. We need European governments to wake up to public opinion and expert advice.”
An open letter has now been sent to all EU environment ministers and the Finnish presidency representing the EU voting bloc at the CITES meeting in Geneva, reflecting the position of the majority of African elephant range states, the great majority of EU citizens, and leading elephant experts and supporting the proposal to end the export of wild-caught elephants for captive use. It’s also been signed by a wealth of celebrities including Alan Carr, Bill Bailey, Bryan Adams, Joanna Lumley, Judi Dench, Paul O’Grady, Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, and Thandie Newton to name but a few.
Between 1990 and 2015, at least 1,774 live, wild-sourced African elephants were reported to have been exported internationally, mostly to non-range states for captive use. Since 2012, China has imported more than 100 elephants from Zimbabwe, including 34 in December 2016, and at least 14 more in August 2017. Video footage suggests that most of these elephants were dependent calves aged between two and four, and a number have since been filmed displaying stress-induced behaviours.
A total of 17 elephants were exported from Swaziland to three zoos in the United States in March 2016; the group reportedly included a pregnant female in violation of international transport rules. One juvenile died prior to transfer, and a further juvenile reportedly died under anaesthesia in September 2017.
Recent media reports suggest that a further 37 young elephants have been captured in Zimbabwe, and are being held in enclosures in Hwange National Park while they await export to captive facilities in China and Pakistan, pending the outcome of a legal challenge against their export that has been brought by a local group of lawyers.
The negative impact on individuals, families, larger social groups and the wider ecology associated with the capture of live elephants from the wild is well documented. The trade has been condemned by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, by the 31 African countries that are members of the African Elephant Coalition, and by many eminent elephant biologists.
“Bringing an end to this trade would be a hugely progressive step, and we will do all we can to ensure the original vote is upheld next week. To do this we urgently need the UK delegation, and those of other European Union member states, to change their position and support an end to the suffering of elephants.”