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Published in the Cape Argus 21st April, 2015

Zimbabwe’s minister for the environment, water and climate, Saviour Kasukuwere, claims that Zimbabwe’s elephant population is so large that it has reached double the country’s carrying capacity. Kasukuwere would have us believe that his country’s recent  capture and selling off wild elephants, many of them babies and sub-adults, to zoos, circuses and private collections to the middle and far-east are necessary in order to sustain the exploding population.

‘We have lots of them’, he told National Geographic in an exclusive interview on the subject of wild elephants at the Botswana’s recent Kasane summit on elephants and wildlife trade. ‘We are open to doing business with the whole world’, he proudly announced, ‘if you want some in London, you can have them.’ According to a paper published by Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Climate titled Zimbabwe’s Position on Live Sales of Elephants and Other Wildlife Species, Zimbabwe’s 5,600-square-mile flagship national park, Hwange, holds 54,000 elephants. That, according to the paper, is probably 40,000 more than the reserve is capable of sustaining. As a result, the minister is looking at ways of both making the population sustainable and ‘to fund the upkeep of our staff, who have a duty to protect the elephants and our wildlife.’

However, the Annual Water-hole Count in Hwange last year by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe revealed that Hwange’s elephant population was less than half the figure touted by Minister Kasukuwere. While the water-hole figures may not be 100% accurate because elephant populations are highly mobile and in a constant state of movement dependant on environmental factors, they do give a fairly good indication as to the general size of the current population. A  10% or 15%  err in favour of an increase of the water-hole figure still leaves the population way off the minister’s claims of 54,000, while a similar err in a decrease is just as likely, and more damning.

As for other areas in Zimbabwe, a survey just released by Kevin Dunham at the Workshop to Develop Elephant Conservation Policy and Management Plan for Zimbabwe has revealed that the elephant population in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River Valley, which includes Mana Pools, has declined by more than 40% over the past thirteen years. This area has until recently been renowned for its healthy elephant population. And in direct contradiction to Kasukuwere’s claims, that the country’s population is expanding the preliminary results for 2014 show a staggeringly sharp decline of 75% in the combined Matusadona and Chizarira areas.

Such is the international concern over Zimbabwe’s elephants that in April 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the suspension of all imports for sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. The primary reason for the suspension, they cited, was due to poor mangement practices by Zimbabwe’s government and wildlife services that have ‘led to a significant decline in elephant populations’. This suspension has this week been reviewed and upheld indefinitely for the same reasons .

Yet most incriminating of all are the figures published by the Elephant Database,  a joint project of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) and Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG). Based on aerial, ground and reliable sample and dung counts Zimbabwe’s total elephant population has been pegged at 47,000 individuals, which is just over half the figure presented by the Zimbabwe government. Furthermore, the report shows that there were 80,000+ individuals in 2007 meaning there has been a drastic decline in 2012, almost 50% less in just five years.

The Elephant Database’s report also expressed concern that there is a serious lack of official systematic and updated monitoring data for the last decade for what once was the third largest elephant population in Africa. As a result of government data degradation, the ‘definite’ numbers category has seen a drop of 41,536 elephants, while the ‘speculatives’ have increased by 45,084.  In short, Kasukuwere is basing his figures of a total population of 88,000 elephants purely on speculation, nowhere does he give any source for his figures nor for his assertions that the elephant population is beyond Hwange’s or the country’s carrying capacity.

Kasukuwere continues to contradict impartial and independent elephant counts and ignore the international damage to Zimbabwe’s reputation by peddling the fiction that elephant populations are not only stabilising but  burgeoning. Hence, Zimbabwe’s official stance in support of wildlife trade at the Kasane summit. This trade policy comes in spite of other contradictory statements made by Kasukuwere that to date no elephants have been shipped overseas. Baby elephants, he maintains, have been separated from the herd, captured and corralled because they are to be moved to other parts of the country. ‘That’s a normal thing,’ he explained, ‘we transfer animals from an area of greater concentration to areas of low concentration. Now and again we capture these animals to try and balance the populations.’ This assertion is patently disingeneous as standard elephant conservation practice allows only for transfer of family groups or mature adults. According to the South African government’s Implementation of Elephant Norms and Standards baby elephants rely heavily on tight family groups for their survival and would not last  for long on their own as the minister suggests. It is therefore inconceivable that the Zimbabwean government would puposefully separate calves from cows in a bonded herd and expect them to survive much beyond the sale, if they even make that far.

The statements from the minister are bewilderingly muddled: on the one hand Kasuluwere states that Zimbabwe is ‘open for business’ in trading live elephants but on the other he voiciferously maintains that none have been sent overseas. Or is it perhaps his unsaid rider to the latter claim is ‘…yet’.

The desire to trade was confirmed again while addressing government ministries, organisations and villagers in Hwange in mid-March. In a hot-tempered rant Kasukuwere railed against the man who went public with the first round of captures of baby elephants in Hwange, Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force. Before lambasting Rodrigues as a racist and having ‘little understanding as a conservationist’ Kasukuwere admitted that the Zimbabwean government ‘are being faced with a barrage of criticism since the time we decided to sell our animals.’

Kasukuwere appears to underestimate international concern about the plight of the captured elephants. Rodrigues’ campaign has already brought widespread damnation to the point that one of the countries previously earmarked as a buyer, France, has demonstratively back-tracked on the sale. Furthermore, the condemnation is universal enough that there is bound to be adverse knock-on effects to Zimbabwe’s already floundering tourism industry.

However, Zimbabwe seems hell-bent on pushing forward with the sale. In a parliamentary report obtained by Bloomberg on Tuesday Zimbabwean lawmakers urged the country to find a way of exporting a large number of elephants, which they say are threatening communities neighboring Hwange. It is obvious then that Zimbabwe will sell off its wildlife, especially elephants, in the name of profit. ‘The country will realize significant revenue from elephant exports,’ the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment, Water and Tourism said in a statement this week. The sale of elephants, according to Hwange park officials, can fetch between US$ 40,000 and US$ 60,000 each.

Therefore, there is little doubt that if Kasukuwere has his way we will soon see hapless elephant calves in miserble claustrophobic compounds in Dubai or China, unless enough international pressure is brought to bear on Zimbabwe’s ruling party to convince them of the fallacy of their plans. With the debate already well through parliament and the baby elephants in the 6th month of capitivity the final decision to sell is immenent. It is critical therefore that everything possible needs to be done to stop it…this issue has gone beyond an emergency.