Photos Show Sad Plight for African Elephants Lifted to China

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New, secretly obtained photos show that elephants snatched from the wild in Zimbabwe months ago and airlifted recently to are malnourished, sunken-looking, and scarred by wounds.

“These calves look really horrible,” says Joyce Poole, co-founder of ElephantVoices, a Kenya-based research and advocacy organization. Poole reviewed the photos, which were sent exclusively to National Geographic.

“I have seen at least 23 elephants,” wrote Chunmei Hu, a project manager with Nature University, a Beijing-based environmental NGO.

Three young female elephants of around four to seven years old stand in a concrete pen at the Qingyuan ZhangLong quarantine facility, in Guangdong Province, China. “The elephants appear malnourished as can be seen in the protrusion of their spines,” says expert Joyce Poole. Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
The white marks on the face and ears of this calf may have been caused by rubbing against the concrete floor during sleep. Modern captive facilities generally don’t use such an unforgiving surface. Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
These two females—between five and seven years old—appear to Poole to be unwell: “Numerous small wounds can be seen on the hindquarters of the one farther away.” Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
Quarantine pens in the Qingyuan ZhangLong facility hold young elephants presumed to be the ones recently imported from Zimbabwe. Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
“This is a malnourished and wounded female elephant,” says Poole. “Her cheekbones protrude, and her face is sunken around her mouth. Her skin is in very poor condition, discolored, dry. She is covered in many smaller and larger wounds.” Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
Seeking companionship, a male reaches his trunk across the divide to touch a female. Both, says Poole, look to be four years old. Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
All five of these elephants look in bad shape, says Poole. “Some appear worse than others.” Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
This male’s trunk is “unusually thin,” Poole says, “almost as if it the muscles have atrophied. Small wounds are visible.” Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
It’s unclear how long these six elephant calves and the nearly 20 others will be held in these barren pens. Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University
A female calf of between five and six stands in her pen. “Her temples are sunken, and her cheekbones protrude,” Poole says. “She has numerous wounds on the side of her body.” Photograph by Chunmei Hu, Nature University

Hu says she took the photos on Monday at the Qingyuan Chimelong quarantine facility, in Guandong Province. “Most of the elephants have been hurt.”

Last month, conservationists alerted National Geographic that Chinese crews were in Hwange National Park—where tens of elephants had been held since November 2014—readying them for transport to China.

China’s purchase of the elephants from Zimbabwe is sanctioned under the Convention on International Trade in of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

CITES General Secretary John Scanlon released a statement confirming the transfer of 24 elephants to China earlier this month. The statement said the elephants are destined for the massive Chimelong Safari Park, in Guangdong.

The export has been decried by animal welfare advocates and conservation organizations around the globe. Opponents say it’s cruel to subject elephants—known for their emotional depth, cooperative nature, and great intelligence—to the trauma of separation from their kind and confinement in prison-like zoos and safari parks.

Zimbabwe announced earlier this year that it would be selling more elephants abroad.

Bullhooks or Infighting?

Poole says the elephants—many as young as four—have protruding cheekbones, lackluster skin, a mottled complexion—which signifies poor condition—and abrasions.

She speculates that the wounds may have been inflicted by people, or by infighting among the elephants, or during their journey from Zimbabwe to China. Or indeed by a combination of all three.

Many of the injuries “are consistent with bullhook wounds,” Poole says, which are sometimes used in transporting and disciplining elephants. (Bullhooks are poker-like, metal instruments traditionally used to “train” elephants.)

“The calves are covered with so many smaller and larger wounds that no matter what they were caused by, the owners and/or handlers must be held accountable,” she says.

Attempts to reach the Qingyuan Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, which oversaw the creation of the Chimelong facility, have not been successful. National Geographic also asked Meng Xianlin, Executive Director-General of the CITES Management Authority of China, to comment. No response was received by the time of publication.

Scott Blais, the CEO of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants, a Tennessee-based organization that aims to create a network of refuges for captive elephants, also reviewed the photographs. Blais once worked in the captive elephant industry.

Blais doesn’t think bullhooks are largely to blame for the wounds: “Many are in areas that a hook wouldn’t typically be used, and there are abrasions that are atypical for hook injuries.”

Rather, he believes, the wounds—some of which are deep and weeks old—are from infighting.

Blais says that what lies ahead for these elephants is many years of unnaturally aggressive behavior. “They’ve already started to lose empathy for one another,” he says, “which is a core element of their normal state of being.”

At such a young age, he says, “these elephants need to be consoled, comforted, and protected.” Instead, the captive environment “leaves a void for healthy emotional, psychological, and physical development. Humans are taking away everything that is fundamentally ‘elephant.’”

This article was first published by National Geographic on 15 Jul 2015.


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Chris Behrens
Chris Behrens

Ken Billington Hi Ken! Thanks so much. I am copying the link to B&N with my book. Kirkus Review and Midwest Review can be viewed there, along with some great customer reviews. You can also see a review from the indieBRAG Medallion Award site. My book received that award. Let me know if this will work or if you prefer something else. THANKS AGAIN!!

Ken Billington

Chris Behrens,

If you want to send me an article or a review on your book – Savanna's Treasure – I will be pleased to publish an article on our website.

Best wishes

Ken Billington

Chris Behrens

Hello! My Indie children's book, Savanna's Treasure, has received an award, great reviews and even made its way onto the shelves of my local B&N stores. Kirkus Reviews gave it a great review. It is an award winning tale about the unlikely friendship between an African field mouse and a baby elephant. Fun facts are sprinkled throughout the story. The issue of poaching is tastefully depicted as was noted by Midwest Book Reviews. My primary editor was Jim Whiting who is a well-pubished children's author. I am currently doing everything possible to promote my wonderful book. A major newspaper in… Read more »

Elsa Byleveldt

Now what is being done and would they come back.

Norma Barkhouse Scott

Such horriffic suffering for these majestic animals,,these,vile undevelped countrys are all about greed for money and will stop at nothing to get wont they wont, bloody corrupt Gov.'s are only interested to get wealter and wealther with no regard how they treat these animals or how much they suffer…Its so sad in this century that these ppl are still barbarians…

Roy Buxton

Doesn’t appear that Zimbabwe is much cop at looking after its wildlife.

Susan Frudd

So sad for these beautiful animals….China and Zimbabwe are a disgrace, cruel and inhumane to cause such suffering, they have no care or compassion for any living creature…

Bobby Balfour

Everybody knows by now that elephants live in close-knit family groups and the babies remain with their mothers for years. This is such heartless and ignorant treatment of these wonderful animals. Zimbabwe and China should be ashamed of this behaviour, reverse what's already happened and stop any further disruption to these and other elephants' lives.

Peter Deelen

What a bastards are those fucking dirty chinese monsters!!!!!!

Debby Lindsay

This is absolutely heartbreaking to say the least. They are so traumatized, hurt and hungry. I am sure they are too emotionally hurt to eat. And of all places! China! who have no respect for their wildlife or anyone else's. And Africa you should be ashamed to give YOUR beautiful wildlife to anyone! Protect your beautiful country and quit letting other countries pillage you!

Linda French

First let me repeat myself when I found out where these animals are going! They shoul never be sent to country like China ! are you friggin kidding me that any country would send a animal of any kind and expect them to be treated as they would in more other developed, less barbaric, and uncaring society. China has a history and the African government should NOT be allowing animals to be shipped to zoos, let a lone sending to China! This was all for money…and what remains are a lot of unhealthy mistreated, hurt and starving elephants in a… Read more »

Virginia Lockwood

heartrending treatment of these beautiful animals which ought to be stopped, and outlawed

Maria Manuela Lopes


Doris Charles

So much cruelty here Ken, they should be in their own environment.