In August, delegates at the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) delivered a historic victory for African elephants by voting to end the cruel practice of capturing live elephants from the wild in Zimbabwe and Botswana and exporting them to zoos and circuses around the world.
Now, absent exceptional circumstances or emergency situations, elephants in these two countries can only be relocated to in-situ conservation programs or secure areas in the wild within the species’ natural and historical range in Africa. (Export restrictions are already in place for elephants in all other African nations.) Eighty-seven CITES parties, representing 75 percent of voting countries, voted in favor of the proposal. The United States, shamefully, voted against it.
Since 2012, Zimbabwe has captured and exported 108 wild African elephants to zoos and circuses in China. Baby elephants are prioritized for capture due to their small size, which makes them easier to transport. Zimbabwe had recently started to target infants as young as 8 months for capture. In addition to the trauma of losing their mothers, baby elephants often face horrific abuse during the capture process. Footage of wild-caught baby elephants awaiting export from Zimbabwe shows calves being beaten and kicked. Some elephants have died before being shipped, during transit, or shortly after arrival. Elephants who survive the long journey have been observed living in dark, barren cells in holding facilities and zoos.
The negative impacts of capture on individuals, families, and larger social groups are well documented. This monumental decision should ensure that wild elephants will no longer be torn from their mothers and familial herds to supply foreign zoos and circuses that are in no way equipped to provide for the needs of these emotionally and socially complex animals.