POLL: Should wild elephants be sold to Chinese zoos?

  • 1.7K

Last year more than 30 young elephants were captured from the wild in Zimbabwe and flown by plane to . The elephants – some reported to be as young as three – were dispersed to a number of throughout the country, including the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, the Beijing Wildlife Park and the Hangzhou Safari Park, according to conservationists.

But what are their lives like now?

This week, 12 of the calves went on show at the Shanghai park. The Weibo page for the zoo says their average age is four. The photos there were reviewed by Yolanda Pretorius, vice-chair of the Specialist Advisory Group of South Africa, who commented: “Overall their body condition seems to be slightly below average but it does not look as if they are starving. One of the elephants has temporal gland secretions and I am not sure whether this is a good or bad sign. In the wild, elephants mostly secrete from their temporal glands when they get excited.”

A scene from the video of recently imported elephants from Zimbabwe, taken at Hanghzhou Safari Park in March. Photograph: Chunmei Hu

Meanwhile, recent photos and video said to show some of the elephants currently in Hangzhou reveal the animals behind bars and walking on concrete floors. The images were obtained by the animal welfare advocate Chunmei Hu, former secretary general of the Chinese Green Development and Fund.

The video has been reviewed by elephant experts, including Joyce Poole, co-founder of the -based Elephant Voices and renowned specialist on elephant behaviour. “They appear rather listless,” she says. “Perhaps waiting for something, but without much attention… Their housing is totally unstimulating. They look like sad, locked-up little kids.”

Aside from these snippets of evidence, there is little information on the conditions faced by these once-wild elephants. There is no official figures for how many elephants were sent to each zoo, although conservationists believe 17 of the calves ended up in Shanghai, 15 in Beijing and six in Hangzhou.

A photo from the social media site Weibo of the elephant calves imported from Zimbabwe into China in December 2016. Some are currently at the Hangzhou Safari Park, conservationists say. Photograph: Weibo

“It is heartwrenching not knowing the current fate of these animals,” says Iris Ho, wildlife campaign manager at Humane Society International. “It’s like knowing that someone – or children in this case, since they are baby elephants – is in danger or trapped in misery for the rest of their lives but there is nothing you can do about it.”

A 2016 report on elephants in Asia said that 47 zoos in China together hold at least 200 captive elephants – but the precise situation is “unclear”. Owners are supposed to register births, deaths, trade and movements, but the rule isn’t enforced or enforceable: “It appears that registration relies on voluntary compliance unless it becomes necessary in the interest of the owner.”

In 2012 a shipment of eight elephants was sent to China from Zimbabwe. Distressing footage was shot of one of those reportedly sent to Taiyuan zoo. In the video, the sickly-appearing calf seems to be trying to smash his way out of his confines. Named Xiaofei, he still lives alone at the Taiyuan zoo, according to Hu.

She believes that the other elephants imported into China that year are dead.

Compared with the trade in ivory, which has led to the of tens of thousands of elephants in Africa, the live trade in elephants receives far less attention. This is probably because it is legal, sanctioned by Cites, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

A video of Xiaofei, shipped from Zimbabwe to China in 2012. Xiaofei lives alone at the Taiyuan zoo in China, according to animal welfare advocate Chunmei Hu.

A review of the Cites database shows many other wild elephant exports that took place over the last few years. Seven elephants were shipped from Tanzania to China in 2011, and two from Tanzania to South Korea. In 2011 and 2012 Monaco sold a total of 12 elephants, originally from Zimbabwe, to Denmark and the Czech Republic. They were probably performing animals. African elephants are a regular feature of the Monte Carlo International .

In 2012, reported exporting 18 elephants to Mexico (Mexico says that only nine arrived), while in 2013 Namibia sent six to Cuba.

In July 2015, 27 wild elephants were shipped to Chinese zoos from Zimbabwe. Hu believes that one of those elephants is dead and that the others aren’t on public display. In September of the same year, China Central Television reported that 24 of the elephants were at the Changlong Breeding Center of Rare and Endangered Species of Wild Animals and Plants would be used for research.

Last year, 17 elephants were sent from Swaziland to three zoos in the US. Initially, there were to be 18, but one reportedly died before leaving Swaziland.

One of the conservationists’ concerns about the live trade is that there isn’t an independent body that adequately oversees these animals once they are captured and ultimately exported.

Cites allows live animals to be sent to “appropriate and acceptable destinations”. But the decision about what is “appropriate and acceptable” is left to the importing country’s scientific authority. It has to be satisfied that the animal is suitably housed and cared for, while the country of export must be satisfied that trade promotes conservation of elephants in the wild.

That’s not good enough for Keith Lindsay, a collaborating researcher with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya: “There currently is under Cites no independent, objective mechanism of oversight or monitoring of the welfare conditions of elephants (or any animals) when they enter the live export chain.”

The minimal welfare standards that do exist are left entirely to the authorities that are already involved in the import and export. “If both countries say they are happy with the welfare aspects of the trade,” Lindsay says, “no matter how genuinely inadequate, there is nothing anyone else can say.”

Elephants performing at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park in March 2017. Photograph: Chunmei Hu

What is needed, Lindsay argues, are Cites resolutions that specify stringent welfare conditions for the entire chain of live trade, including the eventual captivity: “The latter should replicate in every way the conditions of the native ecosystem, and there should be no impacts on the populations from which the animals are taken.”

There was an effort at the most recent Cites conference in Johannesburg to stop the live trade in elephants, led by the Coalition, a group of 29 African nations. But China, the EU, the US and Zimbabwe did not support the resolution and it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority to pass into law.

Meanwhile, rumours continue to circulate that China has a standing order for 100-200 elephant calves from Zimbabwe. And according to Jess Isden of Elephants for Africa, a conservation and research organization based in Botswana, recent captures in are already damaging elephant behaviour. Large numbers of elephants have begun migrating into Botswana from Hwange, some making it as far as the Botetei river, hundreds of miles from their home range.

“The research is not yet conclusive,” she says, “but these animals, mostly young males, could be moving out of Hwange in direct response to the violent captures going on in Hwange.”

As for the elephants most recently sent to China from Zimbabwe, it is unclear if they will be forced to perform, but it appears likely in some cases.

Elephants performing at the Hangzhou Safari Park in June 2016. Photograph: Chunmei Hu

China’s State Forestry Administration issued a directive in July 2010 to end acts of cruelty in safari parks, including a ban on animal performances. However, Hu claims, in many cases these rules are being ignored. Just weeks ago, she says she photographed elephants, tigers, macaques and bears being forced to perform tricks at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park.

Photos of elephants said to have been taken at Hangzhou Safari Park in June 2016 also showed elephants performing tricks, including lifting people with their trunks and standing on stools.

For Scott Blais, founder of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants, who has worked with elephants for decades, such “tricks” are often taught by brutal means: “Elephant experts and advocates across the globe oppose the horrific training these elephants will endure. These practices are well known to be detrimental, violent and grossly inhumane, causing immeasurable psychological and emotional trauma.”

Efforts to ask Zimbabwean and Chinese Cites authorities about the condition of the elephants recently shipped to China met with no response.

This article was first published by The Guardian on 06 Apr 2017.

We invite you to share your opinion whether wild elephants should be sold to Chinese zoos? Please vote and leave your comments at the bottom of this page.

Should wild elephants be sold to Chinese zoos?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Thank you for voting.

Editorial Comment: The purpose of this poll is to highlight important wildlife conservation issues and to encourage discussion on ways to stop . By leaving a comment and sharing this post you can help to raise awareness. Thank you for your support.


Subscribe to our FREE Newsletter




Founder and Executive Editor

Share this post with your friends

  • 1.7K

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
dagmar ober
dagmar ober



Not at all. They shld be safe in sanctuary

World Savior
World Savior

they should be save in a wild

Jocelyn Bright
Jocelyn Bright

This is WRONG on so many levels ……I am enraged that a free wild animal is being sent to a country with appalling animal right’s history to be enclosed when it should be running free with its heard

Ida Pullen
Ida Pullen


Ingrid Franks
Ingrid Franks

Most definitely NOT! The Chinese are notorious for cruelty to animals as well as there own people. Giving money to Mugabe for him to spend on lavavious self and family, is an affront to decent hardworking people who are on the point of starvation. His greed is never ending.

Marty Bostic

Isn’t it an oximoron to ask such a question? I mean, to ask if wild elephants should be held in any form of captivity is ridiculous. Of course, they shouldn’t!! They are wild and the should remain so.

Patricia Mazzoni

Absolutely NOT!!! They are known for their cruelty to animals.

Dee Twitchell

No!!!! They have no idea how to treat any animal!!!!!

Thor Hestnes

the performing elephants are Indian – not African

Judy Johnson

Hell NO!!!!

Ida Pullen

NO! NO animal should be sent to China! They are the cruelest monsters in the world!

Linda Roccisano


Sal Roux
Sal Roux

No. Never. Not ever. Elephants belong in the wild with their families. NO NO NO.

Anette Stauske
Anette Stauske

No animals should be sold to any zoo!

Pat Webb



No, we close the Chinese in a zoo and leave the elephants free in their land.

Stephanie Rosenberg

Ditto Patty Baxter!!

Jacqueleena O


Patty J Baxter


Raina Waters

CHINA should not have any animals, they should not be allowed around them!!!

Rafael G Calderon


Dalia Del Mar

Hell NO !!!!!!!

Dianne Llewellyn

No of course not

Amy Woods


Donna Williford Otto


Dianna Forman

Hell no

Linda Elmas

No way

Tracy Whitcomb

Hell NO!!!!

Debby Skrepcinski


Kathy East


Fran Mehan

Absolutely NOT they belong free

Bernadine Applegate


Fran Mehan

All wildlife deserve to live wild and free they do not belong in zoo’s or in circuses they belong to NATURE NOT MAN. Please stop stealing babies from their mothers you wouldn’t want yours stolen from you.

Lindsay Leclair


Debbie Offerman

Hell no!!!!!!!! That is a no-brainer!!!!!!!

Ariane Lawrence


Rose Moore


Joyce Kolasa

Most definitely not they don’t respect their animals.

Michelle Jones

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO they have no idea how to look after animals apart from torture and eat them

Phyllis Crawford


Annie Beal

Removing young calves from their mothers and exporting them to China where they will be brutally ‘trained’ for entertainment is a truly horrific and vile concept. THIS CRUELTY MUST BE STOPPED AND EXPORTING ANIMALS TO CHINA BANNED.

Susan Layton

Is this a joke ? CHINA tortures cats and dogs ! NO !!!

Joyce Quiroga


Wendy Mackintosh


JoAnne Perkins McIntire


Coll Hogg

Nope and for why. This is the nation that hangs live dogs on spikes and skins them alive. I fear ivory growing is about to start! 🙁

M Leybra
M Leybra

This is wrong on every front, not only the suffering of individual animals but the continued persecution of Africa’s remaining elephant herds struggling to exist. “Recent captures in Hwange National Park are already damaging elephant behaviour. Large numbers of elephants have begun migrating into Botswana from Hwange…hundreds of miles from their home range.” Cites cant be depended on for positive change since is composed of voting nations involved in the live animal trade & will vote w/ self interest as can be expected.

Lindsey Little


Christa Elliott


Medi Oscar Valadji