It seems that where elephant welfare is concerned, every rose has its thorns — or every pole has its hook.
Yesterday, I rejoiced over America and China’s joint agreement to enact near-total ivory bans. The move represented a huge breakthrough in saving elephants, as China and the U.S. are the world’s first- and second-largest ivory consumers. I squealed when I saw the headline; I posted a brief, impassioned status about it on Facebook. For not even a day, I had renewed hope that perhaps, we can save elephants from extinction — perhaps, we can afford them the lives they deserve as emotional, sentient beings.
Now, again, I bow my head in despair.
In March, the Zimbabwean government captured 80 elephant calves, stealing them from their families in Hwange National Park and storing them in cages. Four months later, Zimbabwe sent 24 of those calves to China, flying them there in the dead of night.
Chinese zoos are known to mistreat their elephants, valuing them only for the money they harness from visitors. The zoos rarely have the resources to meet elephants’ physical and behavioral needs, putting elephants’ health at risks in both their enclosures and lack of proper medical treatment. Moreover, China lacks legislation to protect animal welfare, giving the zoos — which often beat, prod and starve animals, elephants and otherwise, to teach them unnatural tricks — nearly free reign.
As such, it should have come as no surprise that when National Geographic released photos of the Zimbabwean elephant calves in China, the animals showed signs of malnourishment, neglect and outright abuse. In fact, I was not surprised — I knew better. Seeing the images, however, remained shocking.
The calves, such as the one pictured above, suffer bloody cuts, swells and abscesses. According to Scott Blais, the CEO of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants, most of the cuts were likely caused by infighting among the calves, some of whom have small tusks. Taken from their families at such young ages, the calves are missing essential years in social development. Infighting reveals unnaturally aggressive behavior on the elephants’ parts — without their herds’ guidance, they have started losing empathy for one another, “a core element of their normal state of being.”
Bullhooks, often used to transport, discipline and traditionally “train” elephants, likely caused the other cuts. According to elephant behavioral expert Joyce Poole, none of the calves’ photographed injuries — whether caused by tusk or hook — have been treated. Rather, the elephants’ handlers are letting the wounds fester, causing some calves to develop infections and swelling.
The photos also show little to no food for the elephants: only grass, too short to eat, scattered across their enclosure. No water sources are visible either. The lack of adequate nutrition accounts for the elephants’ protruding bones and mottled skin.
In addition, some of the older calves appear to have had their tusks broken off at the lip. Poole called that occurrence “highly unusual,” speculating it might signify damage during shipment or pushing against the enclosures’ bars.
Zimbabwe last sent elephants to China in 2012 — eight calves, healthy in the wild, again stolen from their families. As of today, seven of those elephants have died. Chinese zoos’ maltreatment has caused creatures who normally live around 70 years in the wild to die before living a decade. Now, 24 new calves face that deadly fate.
Why is Zimbabwe kidnapping elephant calves, sending them effectively to their deaths? The Zimbabwean government claims that despite the current poaching epidemic, they suffer elephant overpopulation. Claiming to harbor between close to 100,000 elephants on land that can only hold 50,000, Zimbabwe’s leaders justify selling calves to offset that problem. However, wildlife groups disagree with their statistics.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a nonprofit group, contends that Zimbabwe’s government has not audited their elephant population since 1997. Instead, the Task Force argues Zimbabwe has overestimated their figures to sell calves for $40,000 to $60,000 apiece. The Elephant Database — which receives reports from an international network of nonprofits and governments — found that Zimbabwe had only 47,336 elephants in 2012, down from 84,416 in 2007. The Great Elephant Census, a project aiming to calculate southern Africa’s elephant population by 2016, counted only 20,000 elephants in the region as of March.
Meanwhile, elephants as a species face extinction, due to an uptake in poaching and habitat loss. According to 96 Elephants, a nonprofit organization, 96 African elephants die every day — one every 15 minutes. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, released statistics showing that poaching rates currently exceed elephants’ birth rates. The United Nations reported in March that between 20,000 to 25,000 elephants are slaughtered per year, and conservation groups argue that African elephants face extinction within decades. Yet CITES has refused to classify African elephants as endangered. Moreover, CITES has sanctioned Zimbabwe’s elephant sale — trading most ivory is illegal, but trading live elephants is not, and the sale does not threaten the entire species.
That point of view ignores animal rights, and the rights that elephants in particular deserve. Elephants are among the most sensitive, intelligent creatures alive, close to humans. They recognize their reflections in mirrors; they can paint themselves; they cover loved ones’ corpses with dirt as mock burials; they cry when sad; they form lifelong relationships; they love. Stealing elephant calves from their mothers does not threaten all African elephants, but it inflicts inhumane, reprehensible treatment upon those unfortunate calves. Elephants drink their mothers’ milk until they are three or four years old; some captured calves have not yet reached two years. All the calves are missing vital emotional, social development. They have been abused and traumatized, and will likely die early, in wanton state.
Ending the ivory trade is essential, but for elephants, it’s not enough. We must respect them and their rights to natural, healthy lives. By treating its elephants as mere objects to sell, Zimbabwe is forcing calves into pachydermic child slavery. By beating their elephants and denying them medical treatment, Chinese zoos are holding calves in conditions that, if the children were human, would provoke riots.
Even as we celebrate advancements in elephants’ survival, such as America and China’s ivory agreement, we must remember the progress that remains to be made. Elephants are more than their tusks. To call ourselves not just human, but humane, we — Americans, Chinese, Zimbabweans and beyond — must enable elephants to live in peace. Just as we would protect our own children, we must protect elephants from slaughter, abuse and enslavement.