But the traffic does not go unseen
HARARE, Zimbabwe––Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force founder Johnny Rodrigues had surgery on March 10, 2016, lost his wife Cheryl on March 30, 2016, contracted an e-coli infection in Washington D.C. on July 30, 2016, and was nearly bankrupted by unexpected hospital costs, but after months of mourning and relative silence, he is back online exposing exploitation of Zimbabwean wildlife, with GoFundMe and PayPal accounts set up to help keep his organization up and running.
Neither top officials in the 36-year regime of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe nor those at the 28-year-old China-based Chimelong entertainment empire are likely to be rejoicing.
130 elephants, 50 lions
“We reported in February 2016,” Rodrigues reminded readers of his frequent Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force bulletins on September 17, 2016, “that the Zimbabwean authorities and Chinese officials have been capturing animals for export to China. We are aware of eight lions, four giraffes, eight hyenas, and 40 elephants who have been captured already, and are waiting to be sent to Chimelong Safari Park,” one of the largest holdings in the Chimelong empire, also including four other theme parks and the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, the world’s most visited oceanarium.
“The Zimbabwean authorities are trying to fulfill their order of 130 elephants and 50 lions,” Rodrigues explained. “It has been reported that the captors are using bull hooks to coax the elephants in and out of the containers so as to prepare them for their trip to China. The whole unjust practice of capturing these poor elephants has left the family units severely disrupted and damaged which will in turn cause conflict between the humans and the animals.
Monkeys fed to capture team
“Some of the captured animals have been beheaded,” Rodrigues continued, “so that they may be mounted and sold as trophies––especially animals with large horns. Monkeys are being skinned and apparently being fed to the capture team.
“We mentioned in our last report,” Rodrigues added, “that officials are in the process of capturing elephants under the age of six years old to be ‘relocated’ to Chisarira, near Binga, which we found suspicious. We have since been told that they have increased the size of the capture pens so that they can hold more animals.
“The runway airstrip in Victoria Falls has been lengthened so that bigger airplanes can land there. We suspect that this is for the purpose of exporting the captured animals directly out of the Hwange area, instead of transporting them through to the Harare International Airport,” as were 24 young elephants in 2015. Those elephants also were sent to the Chimelong Safari Park, where one of them died in January 2016.
Concluded Rodrigues, “Zimbabwe is the only country in the world that routinely kills [wild] animals on a Thursday to feed the National Parks staff. The Director General of National Parks was sent on forced leave recently because after the officials carried out an investigation, they discovered that 228 kilograms of rhino horn and a couple of tons of ivory were missing from the central stores.”
“We will not apologize”
Responded Zimbabwean environment, water and climate minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri to Rodrigues’ criticism after the young elephant’s death, “We will not apologize to anyone. Not even once, because they are our elephants and our people live with a huge population. We will sell them more without hesitation.”
Rodrigues countered that contrary to the official argument that Zimbabwean wildlife populations are increasing, obliging either exports or culling, recent drought conditions prevailing through Africa suggest a longterm decline.
Drought offers new pretext
Someone in high places must have been listening, because by May 2016 the Mugabe regime outlined to the Harare Herald a whole new rationale for exporting wildlife.
“In a statement,” said the Harare Herald, “the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority said that ‘In light of the drought that was induced by the El Nino phenomenon, Parks & Wildlife Management Authority intends to de-stock its parks estates through selling some of the wildlife,” by offering elephants, wildebeasts, lions, impalas, and zebras for sale to people and organizations deemed to be qualified bidders.
Private conservancy exports lions too
Political reporter Wongai Zhangazha of the Zimbabwe Independent, also published from Harare, meanwhile reported that the privately owned Bubye Valley Conservancy, “which has the highest lion density in Zimbabwe with 14 lions per 100-square kilometre, is planning to translocate some lions to Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. Bubye Valley Conservancy,” a 2,000-square-mile nature preserve formed by linking former cattle ranches, “has about 525 lions,” Zhangazha said.
Explained Bubye Valley Conservancy general manager Blondie Leathem, “We have a high population of lions, but we have not reached a stage of culling them yet, though the lions have reached a level of saturation which results in other species being killed and the lions also killing each other.”
But not to China
Wildlife parks in Rwanda, Malawi and Zambia “can take eight to 10 lions each area,” Leathem said, but “they are not ready to take the lions until 2017.
“We don’t do lion trade with China. An African lion has to remain in Africa; it is the lion’s natural habitat,” Leathem added.
Chimelong marine mammal deals also in spotlight
Amid rounds of controversy over animal acquisitions from Zimbabwe, the Chimelong empire has also come under international criticism over how it has acquired marine mammals for Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, opened in 2014 at Hengqin, Zhuhai, on the southern coast of Guangdong province, and for how the marine mammals are treated after they arrive there.
The facilities are considered state-of-the-art by exhibition industry standards, but so are those of SeaWorld, globally decried by animal advocates, especially since the success of the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, about the captive orca Tilikum and how he killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
13 belugas from Russian Arctic
“A technicolor meld of SeaWorld and Six Flags, Chimelong’s roller coaster and splash rides snake around the world’s largest aquarium and exhibits of whales, dolphins, seals, polar bears, walruses, penguins, and manatees,” described TakePart editorial director for environmental issues Todd Woody after a June 2016 visit.
Thirteen beluga whales captured in the Russian Arctic are among the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom star attractions.
“In the wild, belugas, which are classified as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, typically dive 1,000 feet or more in search of prey,” Woody wrote. “But their tank at Chimelong is barely deep enough for the 13-foot-long, 3,000-pound animals to plunge more than three feet. These white whales live in a fluorescent world. No natural light penetrates their tank or the adjacent 4,000-seat Beluga Theater, where the animals perform 30-minute Las Vegas–style shows up to five times a day.”
“Insatiable demand for whales & dolphins”
According to the anti-marine mammal captivity China Cetacean Alliance, there are now more than 500 marine mammals at Chinese zoos and aquariums, of which Chimelong Ocean Kingdom is among the newest and most successful, “attracting 7.5 million customers [in 2015] paying $53 a ticket,” Woody said.
Of most concern, Woody continued, “China’s seemingly insatiable demand for whales and dolphins is driving a shadowy international trade in the capture of wild marine mammals,” including “keeping in business the brutal annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. Taiji has supplied at least 70 dolphins to Chinese marine parks over the past four years, according to Ceta-Base, a nonprofit that tracks the marine mammal trade. The country has also imported 209 wild bottlenose dolphins since 2010, along with dozens of other dolphin species,” and “as many as 114 wild belugas from Russia since 2010.
Orca shows next?
“No killer whales [orcas] so far have appeared at any marine park in China,” Woody noted. “Yet records from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species show that seven killer whales have been exported to China from Russia since 2013. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has confirmed to activists that nine killer whales have been imported from Russia to Guangdong province,” where Chimelong Ocean Kingdom is located, and multiple industry sources have told them the buyer is Chimelong.”
Woody believes Chimelong Ocean Kingdom intends to include orca shows at a parallel facility to be called Chimelong Ocean World, due to open adjacent to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in 2017.
Woody also observed six whale sharks and three polar bears at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, and learned that Chimelong Ocean Kingdom had just acquired six pink dolphins from Indonesia.