As we mentioned, the debt was incurred in 1998 when Zimbabwe bought equipment from China to help fight a rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo which was then under the rule of President Laurent Kabila. The rebel movement had the backing of Uganda and Rwanda.
The China debt has persisted since then and although the proposed method of debt-settling which was proposed by Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe, may sound bizarre, trading live animals as commodity is not a new phenomenon.
Zimbabwe is a regular trader of live wildlife and although such trades are a grey area, other Southern African states are also involved in selling what are considered surplus animals to zoos or safari parks outside Africa. In fact, between 2010 and 2014 an estimated 500 white rhinos and 20 elephants were exported from various African states.
There was also export of this live wildlife within the continent for the purpose of restocking parks or reserves elsewhere on the continent. Live wildlife sales are not illegal but they are highly controversial. There are long-established rules by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which are to be followed in the event of such sales.
One of such rules is that live exports can only happen between two CITES members. Another says that authorities need to ensure that “the export of the animals would not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild” and would be taken to “appropriate and acceptable destinations”.
It is in the second rule that Zimbabwe and China fail in their live wildlife relationship. Zimbabwe’s removal of young elephants from their herds is very damaging to the individual animals and the herd as a whole.
There is also the consideration that some Chinese zoos and safari parks have less than spotless records for animal welfare and are barely distinguishable from circuses.
The Zimbabwean embassy in China denied the reports of the sale of these animals to settle the China debt. China will also be embarrassed by the story considering the world is still cheering the country on for the decision to ban ivory working and sales.
NGOs and wildlife activists are already sharing their worries that the live elephants used to settle the China debt would at some stage be farmed and their ivory harvested to be sold at a huge profit.