Zimbabwe’s elephants – wanted dead or alive

Zimbabwe's elephants

Zimbabwe’s elephants

Elephants, the big-eared nomads of Africa, are in trouble. They are squeezed for space, many are slain for ivory, and others are sold into captivity.

Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, is blessed with large herds of elephants, some of the happiest on the continent … but there is danger, both from poaching and live export. The elephants are up for sale and buyers are waiting.

Wild elephants in Zimbabwe

I wrote my first piece about the export of live young elephants from Zimbabwe to China in 2013. Today such sales continue. They are not illegal but nothing about the deals seems right.

Herds of wild elephants are targeted, assaulted, and separated.  The young are then captured, and taken to be held in enclosures for months. If they survive they are crated up ready to be transported to their new owners, wherever they may be. If they’re as far away as China hours of air travel lie ahead.

” … you represent to perfection everything that is threatened today with extinction in the name of progress …” (Words of Romain Gary in Dear Elephant, Sir)

Experts have spoken of the intelligence of elephants for years. They are social animals who learn from, and protect, each other.

“Studies of established herds have shown that young elephants stay within 15 feet of their mothers for nearly all of their first eight years of life, after which young females are socialized into the matriarchal network, while young males go off for a time into an all-male social group before coming back into the fold as mature adults.”
      Charles Siebert (poet, journalist and essayist) “An Elephant Crackup?” in the New York Times(8.10.06)

Elephants together in the wild

A newborn of the Kenyan Mountains family crosses the Ewaso Ngiro River, sheltered under the legs of family members. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright © Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a renowned expert on the African elephant and the first to study their behaviour in the wild, states:

“Elephants are intelligent animals which resemble us in some of their behaviour. They give an example of a society in which individuals behave with exceptional tolerance to their own kind, and even in times of distress and danger, hold fast to their family ties. As such they deserve respect in the same way that human life deserves respect.”
                                                                                                                   Among the Elephants, published in 1975

Maya, the matriarch of the Poetics herd, and her daughter greet Boone,
an elderly bull that spends most of his time east of the reserve. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright ©MichaelNichols, National Geographic

Research by many has shown that disruption to an elephant’s family group, particularly violent disruption, has complex consequences that ripple outwards, with individuals showing symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in humans:

“… abnormal startle response, depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour and hyper aggression. “
GA Bradshaw, Allan N Schore, Janine L Brown, Joyce H Poole, and Cynthia J Moss
                                  “Elephant Breakdown,” Nature magazine February 25, 2005

Why then, given the evidence, do we tear young elephants from their families and then condemn them to a lifetime of captivity?

“… we now find ourselves having to make an equally profound and, for many, even more difficult leap: that a fellow creature as ostensibly unlike us in every way as an elephant is as precisely and intricately woundable as we are …”
      Charles Siebert (poet, journalist and essayist) “An Elephant Crackup?” in the New York Times(8.10.06)

Elephants growing up within the family

Surrounded and protected by the adult females, younger elephants of the Virtues family play and mock-fight. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright © Michael Nichols, National Geographic

At the end of Among the Elephants Iain Douglas Hamilton hopes that Africa will understand the need to protect its wildlife:

“I believe that the people of Africa will, even though some sacrifice be involved, show the non-materialistic side of their nature by protecting their natural heritage, which is the richest in the world.”

In the main he is correct but certain African countries remain overwhelmed by poaching, and now bankrupt Zimbabwe forces its wild elephants through a loophole in the law, into captivity in foreign lands.

The distress caused to the elephants, particularly for those chosen for distant zoos and tourist parks, is undeniable and understood – surely we have a duty to protect all elephants from such trade? Unless we do so cruelty, such as that fuelled by Zimbabwe’s lack of funds and China’s appetite, looks set to continue.

The African elephant

“Natures great master-peece, an Elephant,
The onely harmlesse great thing; the giant
Of beasts;…” (John Donne: The Progresse of the Soule – First Song: Verse XXXIX)

Sources used for this article include the following:

Article in The Guardian on recent capture of elephants in Zimbabwe (October 2017)
An article in National Geographic illustrating the results of a recent, extensive survey of elephant numbers in Africa.
Aperture’s book:  Earth to Sky by Michael Nichols
Here are links to two of Charles Siebert’s articles about elephants, both are fascinating:
An Elephant Crackup? (New York Times Magazine)
Orphan Elephants (National Geographic)
The following will take you to a recent article on the accumulating evidence regarding the intelligence of elephants:
Elephants are even smarter than we realized (Scientific American)

Family of elephants in Zimbabwe

Wild elephants in Zimbabwe

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

10 thoughts on “Zimbabwe’s elephants – wanted dead or alive

  1. Reblogged this on The Phraser and commented:

    This began as a reblog of an old post – it has turned into a new one about a situation that continues to haunt me … the on-going sale of Zimbabwe’s wild, young elephants to distant zoos and tourist parks.


  2. What a beautifully written piece Georgie – feeling it! I am full of hope for the elephants because I know deep down that we all are compassionate beings. Some have just forgotten our roots and thanks to beautiful souls like yourself, Mark Deeble and other like-minded souls who are helping us remember. We have to have hope, belief in our kinship and oneness. Thank you for caring so much, deeply moved and full of appreciation, love and peace Marghanita x Here is a link to my small step in helping to raise awareness…http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/05/let-us-not-forget-the-elephants-marghanita-hughes/


  3. Wow! Finally I’ve found the < two minutes necessary to sign up to this. And all because I wanted to say …'Great reading from The Phraser, and looking forward to having my say more frequently!' But as far as the plight of African elephants goes, I think we've been warned about this since I was in my teens – a VERY long time ago, obviously – and we seem to be further from success, in terms of numbers, than we were then. A very shaming world for humans to have had a hand in.


    • Hello! Fantastic to have your company and thanks for your comment. You’re right when you say the problem has been known about for a while. The trouble is that there are now even more of us and our problems and priorities increasingly impact on wild animals, particularly the poor elephant with his need for space. Just hope we don’t turn our backs before a solution is found.


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