Zimbabwe urged to sell surplus elephants

HARARE (Bloomberg) - Zimbabwean lawmakers urged the country to find a way of exporting a large number of elephants to avoid having to cull the animals, which they say are threatening communities neighbouring the nation's biggest game park.

Hwange National Park, which covers 14,651 square kilometers, has about 45,000 elephants and that population is growing by 5 percent a year.

That equates to three times the number the park in northwestern Zimbabwe can sustainably hold, the lawmakers said in a parliamentary report obtained by Bloomberg on Tuesday.

The elephants, which can eat 136 kilograms of food each a day, are destroying vegetation in the park and damaging the crops and livelihoods of neighbouring communities, they said.

If markets cannot be found for the animals, with exports to China already planned, the government will have to resort to culling or contraception, the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment, Water and Tourism said in the report.

"A quick win and low-hanging fruit could be the sale and exportation of live elephants," the committee said. "The committee urgently urges the government to identify vibrant markets that will be able to absorb large elephant sales."

The sale of elephants, which according to park officials can fetch between US$40,000 and US$60,000 (S$54,258 and S$81,388) each, has been criticised by animal rights organizations concerned at the stress the animals will endure when caught and separated from family units as well as their well-being in their new homes.

CULLING OPTION

Still, Hwange and other parks in Zimbabwe are short of funds needed for ranger salaries and general upkeep due to an economic crisis that has cut the size of the economy by half, according to a government estimate, since 2000.

"The country will realise significant revenue from elephant exports, and such revenue can be used to enhance conservation and sustainable wildlife management programmes," the committee said.

Elephant exports are permissible under rules adopted by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the lawmakers said.

Alternatively, the animals may have to be killed, the lawmakers said. Between 1960 and 1998, 46,000 elephants were culled in Hwange. The practice has been abandoned in Zimbabwe and other countries after protests by animal rights activists.

"This approach requires a definite institutional mind-set that its pro-culling," the committee said. "In Hwange National Park, the number of elephants is so large that one of the only realistic ways of bringing the population under control is culling."

'UNDER SIEGE'

While contraception by darting could also be considered, translocation of elephants within the country would be too expensive, the lawmakers said.

African elephants are considered endangered, with about 470,000 left in the wild in 37 countries, about 300,000 of them live in the southern African nations of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.

The report's findings follow a tour by the lawmakers to the park on Jan. 13 to Jan. 16. The lawmakers were drawn from the ruling Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party.

The rights of local communities also need to be taken into account, they said.

"It was apparent and crystal clear that communities were living under siege from elephants and other wild animals," the committee said. "Communities were very emotional about the threat posed by elephants."