- On December 23, Zimbabwe officials quietly loaded thirty-five elephants between the ages of three and five onto planes that would fly them thousands of miles to safari parks in China. The elephants had been taken from the wild and their families in Hwange National Park.
- Zimbabwe airlifted the elephants to their new homes just a month after a stunning bloodless coup in the country led to the ouster of Robert Mugabe, who oppressively ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, and the installation of Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former First Vice President and ally of Mugabe’s.
- For years, Zimbabwe conservation policies have largely depended on exploitation, often via trophy hunting and selling animals abroad. But change may be in the air.
Less than a month after exporting thirty-five wild elephants to China, the new government of Zimbabwe has signaled it is moving in a new direction on conservation issues.
On December 23, Zimbabwe officials quietly loaded thirty-five elephants between the ages of three and five onto planes that would fly them thousands of miles to safari parks in China. The elephants had been taken from the wild and their families in Hwange National Park. Although not illegal, the repeated capture of wild elephants in Zimbabwe (this is the third time since 2012) has sparked international backlash, given what we know about elephant intelligence and social needs.
“The order is for two hundred baby elephants and so far ninety-nine elephants have been exported to China to Chongqing Safari Park and to Daqingshan Safari Park,” Johnny Rodrigues, the head of the NGO the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told Mongabay. “We tried everything: we did petitions, we wrote letters, we had people phone in but we failed.”
Zimbabwe airlifted the elephants to their new homes just a month after a stunning bloodless coup in the country. The coup led to the ouster of Robert Mugabe, who oppressively ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, and the installation of Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former First Vice President and ally of Mugabe’s.
Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority were clear in a statement about why the elephants were exported: money.
“Zimbabwe believes that wildlife conversation should pay for itself,” read the statement by Zimparks, who noted they followed CITES regulations “religiously.”
“Live sales of elephants to international destinations are done to generate financial resources for conservation programmes… Zimbabwe, unlike other countries has a unique wildlife conservation funding system that no amount is budgeted for conservation in the national budget.”
But a change of government after nearly four decades has left many to wonder: Will Mnangagwa continue Mugabe’s policies of making wildlife pay directly for itself?
New government mulling change
For years, Zimbabwe conservation policies have largely depended on exploitation, often via trophy hunting and selling animals abroad. Tourism in Zimbabwe has been hampered by government instability and poor infrastructure, while national parks and conservation programs suffered from lack of funding and investment.
But change may be in the air.
“In light of the recent export of elephants from Zimbabwe, the government is reviewing conservation decisions of the previous dispensation and formulating a policy to move forward,” Christopher Mutsvangwa, the Chief Advisor to the new president, said in a statement this month.
To highlight this purported shift, President Mnangagwa recently met with two local conservation organizations, the Tikki Hywood Foundation and the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). A rescue and rehabilitation group, the Tikki Hywood Foundation has become well-known for its work with pangolins – and the government even released a picture of a smiling Mnangagwa posing with a pangolin (which will be returned to the wild after rehabilitation).
IAPF, meanwhile, runs the Akashinga program — an all-woman, all-vegan, elite ranger force that is heralded as one way to replace Zimbabwe’s dependency on trophy hunting for revenue.
“In a country that has suffered decades of decisions not favorable to progress, it is hard to imagine that everything will change overnight. There is still much baggage to be shed,” Damien Mander, founder of IAPF, said.
But he added that he believes the government is sincere in its desire to change: “Discussions with the new leadership leave me confident that Zimbabwe and its conservation policies are moving in the right direction, step by step.”
The president’s youngest daughter, Tariro Mnangagwa, recently visited the Akashinga program.
“These women show me hope,” Mnangagwa told the Guardian. Mnangagwa, according to the government, went on patrols, conducted training and participated in community meetings with the local rangers, many of whom are single mothers.
“The government’s statement has been well received internationally, as it demonstrates that President Mnangagwa wishes to oversee a departure from some of the more exploitative environmental policies of the Mugabe administration,” Niall McCann, the Director of Conservation for National Park Rescue, which works in Zimbabwe, said. “There is hope among the international conservation community that Zimbabwe will become a leader in conservation… and a premier destination for wildlife tourism.”
The government has recently made efforts to show that Zimbabwe’s doors are open to visitors.
“As we enter into this historic new era for Zimbabwe we are proud to share our heritage and the beauty of our nation with the world,” President Mnangagwa said in a statement this month. And indeed, since Mugabe’s ouster, preliminary reports show tourism may already be on the rise.
“Zimbabwe needs tourism and international investment to close the gap between where we are, and where we can be,” Mander said. “Having operated here for nine years now, there is a shift in the conservation climate that I believe can be harnessed to play a major role in the rebuilding of the country.”
But is the change real?
Meeting with conservation groups, posing for photos, and making statements is one thing, but change on the ground is far more difficult given decades of extreme policies in Zimbabwe.
“Few know that Mugabe’s government ordered that national park rangers — who risk their lives to protect wildlife — shoot a quota of elephants and other wildlife for their daily rations,” a conservationist who works in the country told Mongabay, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Our hope is that the new government replace this insane policy with food purchased from the desperately poor communities surrounding parks.”
Some local conservationists expressed concern that Mugabe’s Environment, Water And Climate Minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, retained her post in the new administration.
“The new government is like a leopard who doesn’t change its spots but changes its tactics… the new president did not stop the [elephant] export,” said Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force’s Rodriques, who added, “I have very little hope for conservation in Zimbabwe unless they stop all the greed and corruption.”
Despite ongoing concerns, there have been some concrete developments only two months after the coup. For instance, police have recently arrested the owner of a hunting concession due to suspicions of smuggling ivory.
There are also reports that the new government is investigating Grace Mugabe, wife of the former leader, for her alleged role in a massive ivory and rhino horn trafficking ring, as well as other crimes.
(One recent report says the government has decided to ban wild elephant capture, but Mongabay has been unable to confirm this.)
Mander stressed that what Zimbabwe needs now is time, support, and encouragement.
“Despite its safety and beauty, Zimbabwe has been a global punching bag for too long,” he said. “Things are rapidly improving here and we need to open our minds to the great potential for progress.”
Even if change arrives, it will come too late, of course, for the thirty-plus elephants that have been sent to China. Conservationists fear that the capture of wild elephants will leave their wild families scarred, and potentially lead to more conflict with people — already a major problem in Zimbabwe.
“In Zimbabwe people have been chasing down families with vehicles and helicopters and abducting baby elephants in the same areas where people must try to live in harmony with them and where they want tourists to visit,” Joyce Poole, an elephant expert and co-founder of Elephant Voices, told Mongabay. “It is complete madness to mistreat elephants and expect no negative consequences.”
Poole said scars can linger for generations, given that elephants — like humans — learn from their elders. Elephants in Gorongosa National Park, she explained, are still aggressive to people due to an explosion of poaching during Mozambique’s civil war, which ended in 1992.
“While elephants can learn to trust people again, this is a very lengthy process,” she said.
Recuperating from decades of mismanagement, little funding, and corruption is also a lengthy process. But recent signals may be the start of a new day in Zimbabwe.
“With my hand on my heart I ask, let’s give this country a chance to get it right,” IAPF’s Mander said. “There are lots of wounds to mend, but the political willingness is here now, and that has been the missing key ingredient for far too long.”
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