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BLOOD MONEY: Huge sums of unaccounted for cash in Zimbabwe’s cruel elephant slave trade to China

Ripped from their homes and loved ones, they’re now enduring an unnatural life in captivity. One filled with all the horrors, such as brutal training and demeaning performances, that such an existence can hold.

TRACY KEELING: The controversial sale of elephants from Zimbabwe to other countries, mostly China, is again in the spotlight. The renewed scrutiny comes due to author and filmmaker Karl Ammann highlighting related trading documents. They suggest there’s vast amounts of unaccounted for cash connected to the trades.

The attention comes at a bad time for China. The country is due to host a high profile biodiversity conference in May. These revelations will also do little to lessen criticism of Zimbabwe’s decision to capture wild elephants and sell them off to foreign zoos.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is unlikely to take pleasure in the scrutiny either. The global wildlife trading body oversees the system through which these elephant trades happen. Moreover, it’s already facing legal complaints over alleged violations of its rules.

Most of all, however, the fresh controversy is a further indictment of the wildlife trade. It’s an industry that has already proved to be devastating for humans and other animals. So the last thing it needs is further marks against its name…

Zimbabwe exported 32 young elephants to China in 2019. The sale caused an uproar as it happened amid legal action to halt the shipment. Zimbabwe also went ahead with the export just before CITES implemented a landmark rule change that would have made it near impossible to push through…

In response to the furore, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) released a list of elephant sales since 2016. On the list, ZimParks declared the income it earned from the elephants and what it spent the money on… ZimParks declared an income per elephant of between $31k and $41.5k.

But Ammann, who’s been investigating the international trade in elephants for years, has now brought attention to trading documents connected to the sales. They appear to show that some of the Chinese recipient venues declared a cost per elephant of around $125k… That seems to be the case, for example, for both Longemont Animal World and Xiongsen Animal World.

These venues received the elephants controversially sold in 2019, but ZimParks said the payment it received for the elephants going to those venues was $31k each. This means a discrepancy of $94k per elephant in those cases…

A major concern in relation to these unaccounted for funds is that allegations of bribery and kickbacks abound within the CITES wildlife trading system. One current legal complaint against CITES, for example, involves allegations of corruption in Asian elephant trading between Laos and China. The UK law firm Advocates for Animals has raised this complaint with CITES on behalf of Ammann…

In the case of the unaccounted for funds in Zimbabwe’s exports, Ammann says that “a range of players”, including brokers, could have cashed in via “kickbacks, bribes and commissions”. He alleges that “several sources” in China have told him that there are costs in the region “of US $160,000 per permit and per shipment” involved in international wildlife trading there…

The fact that these elephant sales are seemingly up to their neck in opaque cash isn’t the only issue though. There are numerous problems with the trades. In a 2020 report, CITES members Niger and Burkina Faso accused Zimbabwe of contravening the Convention’s rules with the 2019 exports. Under the rules, Zimbabwe can only export elephants to ‘appropriate and acceptable destinations’ that are “suitably equipped to house and care” for them…

The report also noted that ZimParks officials and the chief inspector of the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA) had previously assessed eight Chinese venues in 2016, as ZimParks indicated in its 2019 comments. It explained that the inspectors “expressed concerns over the poor treatment and unacceptable facilities for elephants”. But the minister of environment authorised the exports nonetheless, the report said…

Ammann has secured footage of 11 of the elephants in the 2019 export at their further destination, namely Xiongsen Animal World…. The experts said these elephants will suffer “throughout their most likely significantly shortened lives”. The overwhelming reaction of the experts was that Xiongsen isn’t an ‘appropriate or acceptable’ destination.

The trades have also faced hefty criticism for the brutality involved in abducting young elephants from their families. The young age of the elephants is also an area of controversy. Meanwhile, the scale of mortality in the trades is disturbing. Of eight young elephants exported in 2012, the 2020 report says seven are now dead or presumed dead. As of 2019, the remaining elephant was enduring a lonely existence in Taiyuan Zoo.

The CITES system is full of holes that appear to be ripe for exploitation. The fact that huge sums of money may have disappeared through its cracks in relation to these trades is very concerning… Clearly, though, the money isn’t just disappearing into thin air. There are apparently some winners in these less than transparent trades.

Exactly who those winners are may not be known yet, but we do know who isn’t coming out on top. The families of the abducted elephants aren’t, as they’re left bereft and traumatised by the loss of their young. Neither, of course, are the young elephants themselves. Ripped from their homes and loved ones, they’re now enduring an unnatural life in captivity. One that’s potentially filled with all the horrors – such as brutal training and demeaning performances – that such an existence can hold. SOURCE…

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