CITES Ends Export of Wild African Elephants to Zoos, Circuses

Photo from Flickr by Diana Robinson
Photo from Flickr by Diana Robinson

Geneva, Switzerland—In a monumental move today, delegates at the 18th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties delivered a crucial victory for African elephants by voting in plenary to end the barbaric practice of removing live elephants from the wild and shipping them to zoos and circuses around the globe.

Eighty-seven CITES parties, representing 75 percent of voting countries, decided to restrict trade in live elephants from Zimbabwe and Botswana to in situ conservation programs or secure areas in the wild within the species’ natural and historical range in Africa, with limited exceptions. This would end the export of elephants from these countries to captive facilities outside of Africa, barring exceptional circumstances or emergency situations.

“This is a remarkable victory,” said Johanna Hamburger, wildlife attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC. “Today’s action will save an untold number of baby elephants from the horrific experience of being torn from their mothers, beaten during capture and conscripted into a lifetime of captivity. Now, these animals can continue to roam the African wilderness with their families—where they belong.”

Last week, 46 CITES parties voted in committee to limit the elephant trade, but the vote still needed to be finalized in the plenary session today.

The European Union—which, along with the United States, opposed the proposal in committee last week—moved to reopen the debate. The EU offered several amendments to the proposal clarifying that the restrictions would not apply to elephants already housed in zoos and facilities outside of Africa and would permit transfers abroad in exceptional circumstances where wild elephant populations would gain considerable conservation benefits. The CITES Animals Committee and the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group would be responsible for reviewing such transfers.

Unsatisfied with these amendments, the United States—for the second time in less than two weeks—voted against limiting the elephant trade.

“By voting against this proposal today, the United States disregarded opposition to this cruel practice from the American public, 31 African countries, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and many eminent elephant biologists,” Hamburger said.

Since 2012, Zimbabwe has captured and exported 108 wild African elephants to zoos. From a helicopter, captors shoot tranquilizer darts at the young elephants, and then maneuver the chopper to drive away the rest of the herd. Some elephants die while waiting to be shipped, in transit, or upon arrival at their destination. Elephants who do survive the long journey have been observed living in dark, barren cells in holding facilities and zoos.

“Elephants are social and emotional animals who form strong family bonds and suffer tremendously in captivity, both physically and psychologically.” Hamburger said. “The negative impacts of capture on individuals, families, larger social groups and the wider ecology are well-documented.”

“The only acceptable and appropriate destination for wild African elephants is their natural range states,” Hamburger added. “No wild elephant should be stolen from the herd and subjected to miserable conditions in order to stock zoos and other entertainment facilities in faraway countries. Today’s vote shuts down the pipeline for elephants to be sold into captivity.”

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Margie Fishman, (202) 446-2128, [email protected]