HARARE – A plan by the Zimbabwean authorities to sell baby elephants to foreign buyers has set off a firestorm of debate in the southern African country and among international animal rights activists.
Zimbabwe’s Conservation Task Force is working with conservationists on a petition to call off the planned sale.
“We are expecting at least one million signatures from around the world,” Task Force Chairman Johnny Rodrigues told the Anadolu Agency.
Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Authority recently announced that it was thinking about selling 62 elephants to buyers in China, France and the United Arab Emirates.
“The sale of elephants is [being considered] due to the fact that Hwange National Park, the country’s biggest game reserve, isn’t receiving adequate state funding,” Conservation Director Geoffreys Matipano said in a statement issued last week.
He said elephants would be sold for between $40,000 and $60,000 each, depending on age.
The proceeds, Matipano added, would help meet the game park’s roughly $2.3 million annual running costs.
“We don’t receive state funding; we rely on selling animals for our day-to-day operations. We are nowhere near what we want,” he asserted.
Rodrigues, for his part, said the elephants would be sold to rich families in China and the Emirates.
“If they want to see the animals, they should visit Zimbabwe,” he said.
Conservationists across the world are fighting the planned sale of baby elephants, citing the death of three of four elephants captured in Hwange National Park in 2012 and subsequently sent to two Chinese zoos.
American movie stars Pierce Brosnan and Leonardo Di Caprio are said to be among those leading the fight against the planned sale.
So far, there have been at least four petitions – from the U.S., the EU, Africa and Asia – trying to block the sale.
Some campaigners plan to present the petitions to the European Parliament, while Zimbabwe’s Conservation Task Force plans to submit its petition to the Zimbabwean parliament on January 27.
Zimbabwean government officials, meanwhile, have criticized the campaign to block the elephant sale.
The Herald, a local newspaper widely regarded as the ruling party’s mouthpiece, has quoted government officials as saying that elephants were overgrazing the grass in their indigenous habitants, causing serious damage to the local ecosystem.
“Faced with such an environmental time bomb, it was imperative for Zimbabwe to consider a request by other countries [for the purchase of elephants] in order to raise income and save the environment,” Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere was quoted as saying.
The plan to sell Zimbabwean elephants comes amid concerns about the animals’ depleting population.
A national survey released earlier this year found that Zimbabwe’s elephant population had fallen by 40 percent, blaming the trend on rampant poaching.
In 2013, nearly 400 elephants died in Zimbabwe due to cyanide poisoning, one of the methods employed by poachers.
Experts have described the mass poisoning as one of the worst elephant massacres to be seen in southern Africa in a quarter-century.
There are about 470,000 African elephants that remain in the wild, some 300,000 of which can be found in the southern African countries of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.