ZIMBABWE – Brace yourselves for ridiculousness overload, Green Monsters. The government of Zimbabwe – seemingly not content with having sold numerous wild elephants into captivity already – has just decided to export even more. The twenty-four young elephants who were airlifted from Hwange National Park to a variety of zoos and amusement parks in China last year have now been shown to be suffering from a variety of health problems. Allegations of mistreatment against zoo handlers have also surfaced.
Despite this, however, Zimbabwean authorities seem to be content to sentence even more of the country’s wildlife to a similar fate, and have even gone so far as to claim that Chinese zoos offer them “a better and safer environment.” Oppah Muchingiri, Zimbabwe’s Minister for the Environment, Water, and Climate, said, “We are happy that young African animals have been well accommodated here in China. We are willing to export more in the years to come as it would help in the preservation of wild animals.”
However, Phyllis Lee, director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, and Joyce Poole, co-director of Elephant Voices, were quick to refute these claims. They said that zoos “serve no credible conservation purpose” as none of the now-captive elephants or their offspring will be returned to the wild – a measure they defined as “the gold standard of conservation.”
If the government of Zimbabwe truly wanted to do what was best for the elephants’ health and well-being, the last thing they should be doing is sending them to a zoo.
Sadly, captive elephants never get to experience the close familial and social bonds that they would enjoy in the wild. Free-living elephants roam in tightly bonded matriarchal herds, led by the eldest female. The herd generally consists of the matriarch, her adult daughters, and their offspring. Adult males often live in separate “bachelor” groups. Elephants are known to be extremely intelligent, sensitive and emotional creatures, who mourn when a loved one dies.
In the wild, elephants are also used to roaming up to 50 miles a day. This level of physical activity helps keep their weight down, strengthens their bones and joints, and promotes healthy blood flow. However, the lack of exercise and stimulation the animals receive in their far smaller zoo enclosures can be extremely detrimental to their health, leading them to develop problems such as obesity and foot ailments. In fact, it is estimated that 40 percent of captive elephants are obese: a phenomenon seldom, if ever, witnessed in their wild counterparts. Foot problems are the leading cause of death for elephants in captivity.
Elephants held in zoos, circuses, or other captive facilities have repeatedly been witnessed engaging in stereotypic behaviors – abnormal, repetitive actions never displayed by wild animals – such as swaying from side to side, head-wobbling, and even self-mutilation. Sadly, captive animals of all kinds frequently engage in these behaviors. They are believed to be outward manifestations of the animals’ emotional and mental distress.
Tragically, it appears that more young elephants in Zimbabwe are bound to suffer this fate.