Are China’s zoos ‘acceptable’ places for Zimbabwe’s wild baby elephants?


There has been talk of Zimbabwe taking up to 80 baby elephants from their families in the wild to sell to foreign buyers, including China for some time. Details of the transfer have been hard to come by. How many elephants? Which country (or countries) are they going to?


African elephants are protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which prohibits or restricts the international trade of elephants and their derivatives.

Speculation about the transfer has drawn so much worldwide condemnation that the CITES Secretariat issued a public statement. The statement clarifies that the Secretariat does not make the ultimate decision. And that it is up to the importing country to determine whether the live elephants are going into ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’. By ‘appropriate and acceptable, the CITES document clarifies ‘that the destination for live animals should be those that ensure that the animals are humanely treated’.

China has been mentioned as one of the possible destinations for the shipments of live baby elephants. This is not surprising, as elephants have become big attractions for tourists in China. Chinese zoos are all clamouring to have their own elephants.

In November 2012, two Chinese zoos in the country’s north and northwest bought four elephant calves from Zimbabwe. Unable to withstand the trauma of being kidnapped from their families and going into a bitterly cold environment, three of the baby elephants soon died.

A lone elephant stands on concrete in a zoo. © IFAW

A lone elephant stands on concrete in a zoo. © IFAW

A zoo is no place for an elephant. Even the most modern zoo, exercising the industry’s best practices, cannot meet the physical and psychological needs of these highly intelligent and social animals.

Elephants confined to captive environments that are unable to meet their physical and behavioral needs, (ie in isolation, small enclosures, concrete floors) are vulnerable to stress that affects their physical and psychological health.

Zoo elephants often die far earlier than their wild counterparts. Among those that survive, chronic illness such as tuberculosis, chronic foot and joint problems and symptoms of psychological illness persist.

Substandard living conditions aside, zoo animals are often victims of abuse and inhumane treatment, as China lacks the animal welfare legislation or enforcement mechanisms to protect these wild animals.

An elephant is made to perform in another zoo. © IFAW

An elephant is made to perform in another zoo. © IFAW


According to an independent report by Chinese university students who observed 21 zoos across China in 2011, wild animals are solely money-making tools for zoos and safari parks.

While they are alive, animals are beaten, prodded, deprived of sleep and starved to perform all kinds of unnatural behaviors. Elephants are made to walk in high wire acts. Tigers are made to jump through rings of fire. Predators and prey are frequently put on the same float for a tragically named, ‘Grand Parade’.

To maximize profit, it has been reported that many animals are forced to ‘work’ for hours on end. And animals that do not work must earn their keep by ‘begging’ tourists to buy food to feed them.

When zoo animals die, their meat and body parts are often conveniently served in the restaurants on the premise of these zoos and safari parks.

The Chinese characters translate to, 'Do It Again!' © IFAW

The Chinese characters translate to, ‘Do It Again!’ © IFAW

A reality show on Chinese TV called ‘Wonderful Friends’ recently showed the acrobatic maneuvers an elephant currently residing at Chimelong Safari Park in southern China. This poor creature was made to perform repeatedly.

Imagine the amount of physical, mental and psychological pressure this elephant is made to suffer, again, again and again!

Then imagine the agony baby African elephants taken from their mothers in the wild will be forced to endure if and when they are sent to zoos and safari parks in China. Do you consider these zoos and safari parks ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’ for the elephant calves from Zimbabwe?

I applaud the French government for rejecting the idea of a purchase of 20 elephants from Zimbabwe, recognizing the move would traumatize these intelligent animals.

I hope Chinese authorities will also follow France’s humane and ethical example, because subjecting elephants to a lifetime of suffering in zoos and safari parks is inappropriate and unacceptable.

For more information about IFAW efforts to protect African elephants, visit our campaign page.



IFAW Founded in 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare saves individual animals, animal populations and habitats all over the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW provides hands-on assistance to animals in need, whether it’s dogs and cats, wildlife and livestock, or rescuing animals in the wake of disasters. We also advocate saving populations from cruelty and depletion, such as our campaign to end commercial whaling and seal hunts. Go to to find out more about our campaigns.




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