In historic step forward, nations signal strong support to end capture and export of wild African elephants to zoos
Delegates at the world’s largest conference on endangered species have voted to end the cruel capture and export of wild African elephants to zoos worldwide, giving these beleaguered animals, already under attack from trophy hunters and poachers, a historic win.
While this vote will need to be confirmed next week at the conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), we are excited about this initial development and hopeful that we are close to ending a cruel trade that causes immense suffering for animals. Zimbabwe has, since 2012, exported a total of 108 elephants to zoos overseas. The decision would also apply to Botswana, where, like Zimbabwe, elephants are not as strictly regulated.
On Sunday, 46 member countries of CITES agreed in a committee vote, during the body’s triennial conference in Geneva, to only allow trade of live African elephants captured in Zimbabwe and Botswana to situations in which elephants would be released into natural habitats and not held in any captive settings.
The final vote on the proposal will come next week, during the conference’s plenary session, and given this initial show of support, we are hopeful it will be finalized. Our HSI team is on the ground at the Geneva conference and hard at work to secure the final approval. This decision is also especially important for us stateside in light of recent media reports that some U.S. zoos may be importing elephants from Africa.
The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International have, for a long time, spoken out against the capture and trade of wild elephants to zoos — a view shared by leading elephant experts. Our representatives are now at the Geneva conference to advocate for increased protections for a variety of imperiled species, including elephants, giraffes, sharks and leopards, and we have been pushing to support the effort from the African Elephant Coalition to save wild elephants from being caught and separated from their family groups, sent to faraway destinations, and kept in captivity.
In a disappointing turn of events, the United States was among 18 countries that opposed the proposal. Earlier this year, Americans were outraged by news that 35 baby elephants were torn from their mothers in the wild in Zimbabwe for export to zoos in China. These calves are still being housed in holding pens in Zimbabwe, and more than 108,000 people signed our petition asking the Zimbabwean government to stop these exports. The U.S. vote shows that our country’s representatives are completely out of touch with the sentiments of a majority of Americans, who do not believe that ripping baby animals from the wild and sending them to a life of captivity overseas is the right thing to do.
The U.S. vote also runs contrary to the administration’s professed priority of being a global steward to protect trafficked species: in 2017, President Trump issued an executive order enforcing federal law with respect to transnational criminal organizations and preventing international trafficking. The administration also made a $90 million commitment to protecting international species in peril, such as the African elephant.
Elephants are social and emotional creatures who form strong family bonds and suffer tremendously in captivity. These gentle giants also face horrific abuse during capture and trade, and footage of wild-caught baby elephants awaiting export from Zimbabwe show calves being beaten and kicked during capture. Some elephants have died during transit or shortly after arrival. Elephants who survive the long journey have been found living in dark, barren cells in the zoos. Contrast this with how elephants live in the wild, roaming vast ranges with family groups and larger clans.
We urge the United States and the European Union, which also spoke out against the proposal, to reconsider and reverse their decisions before the plenary vote next week. Knowing all that we do, there is no call for these two global leaders to support an industry built on brutality and the suffering of animals.