China, one of the leading buyers of African elephants, could face difficulty in acquiring the mammals if a widening of a ban on their sale to zoos is ratified next week by the global regulator of wildlife trade.
A motion further restricting the sale of live elephants was on Sunday supported by 46 countries at the committee stage of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) in Geneva. It will go to a final vote on August 28.
The sale of elephants from West, Central and East Africa is already banned - but there is a lower level of protection for them in southern African countries such as South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which are the top three exporters of wild elephants to overseas zoos, according to Cites.
Keeping elephants caught from the wild in zoos is considered cruel by conservation and animal rights groups.
Conservationists criticised Zimbabwe's capture of 35 baby elephants that were exported to a Chinese zoo in February. There was also uproar from activists in 2015 when a video filmed in a Chinese zoo showed two dozen elephants bought from Zimbabwe exhibiting signs of distress.
Zimbabwe was among 18 countries that opposed the potential ban at the committee stage, along with the United States - another leading buyer of elephants from Africa. China was one of 19 countries that abstained, while the European Union's 28 countries did not vote.
If the motion is passed, China and the US - both known to be buying elephants from Africa and keeping them in so-called captive facilities or zoos - may find it hard to source the animals from the continent. Zimbabwe has come under global scrutiny for its capture and sale of elephants to captive facilities including zoos and safari parks in China and the US.
Peter Knights, founder and chief executive of WildAid, an environmental organisation in San Francisco, explained that Cites still allowed the movement of live elephants for on-site conservation efforts such as moving the animals back into the wild or to a national park where they had been depleted.
"This is not primarily a conservation issue but more about animal welfare," he said. "As highly social, intelligent animals, African elephants do not usually do well in captivity, requiring very large areas, and often developing behavioural problems in captivity and not usually reproducing successfully - indicating far from ideal housing."
According to Humane Society International, which promotes animal welfare, Zimbabwe has sold more than 100 baby elephants to zoos in China since 2012, with a further 35 reportedly awaiting export.
On Monday, 55 elephant specialists protested to the US wildlife management agency about plans for the country's zoos to import juvenile elephants caught in the wild from Zimbabwe. They asked the agency to prohibit imports of wild-caught elephants for captivity in US facilities.
"We are vehemently opposed to the proposed imports," the experts wrote in a letter to the agency. "Young elephants are dependent on their mothers and other family members to acquire necessary social and behavioural skills. Male calves only leave their natal families at 12 to 15 years old and females remain for life. Disruption of this bond is physically and psychologically traumatic for both the calves and remaining herds and the negative effects can be severe and lifelong."
The letter said that eSwatini, formerly Swaziland, had sold a total of 11 wild elephants to two American zoos in 2003, and a further 18 to three US zoos in 2016.
Concerns about keeping elephants in zoos come at a time when the animals remain under threat in Africa from poachers who kill them for ivory.
Southern African countries such as Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia are pushing to reopen the trade in ivory. Zambia is seeking to have the classification of its elephants downgraded to allow commercial trade in registered raw ivory with approved trading partners.
Other countries, including Kenya, Nigeria and Gabon, are seeking the highest possible levels of protection for all of Africa's elephants.
Two previous attempts at regulating the ivory trade failed to curb poaching, which has caused elephant numbers to dwindle over the past two decades. A 2016 study estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 elephants were being killed every year, with about 400,000 remaining in total.
Knights, of WildAid, said that between 1975 and 1989 - the first period in which the ivory trade was regulated - half of Africa's elephants were lost. During the second attempt at regulation between 2008 and 2017, participating countries claimed to have addressed the problem but poaching increased.
"It is clear that we cannot control ivory trade and that legal trade stimulates poaching and demand for ivory, rather than substituting for it as some countries suggest. The price fell by two-thirds when China banned domestic sales," Knights said, adding that demand for ivory came primarily from Asia.
"Most seized shipments are en route to China. It has banned all sales and is making a great effort to crack down on illegal trade."
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