The elephants, estimated to be 2 to 6 years old, were separated from maternal herds and held at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park for nearly a year before being flown out this week, the organization said.
“We are left feeling outraged and heartbroken at this news that the Zimbabwean authorities have shipped these poor baby elephants out of the country,” said Audrey Delsink, wildlife director of Humane Society International.
“Condemning these elephants to a life of captivity in Chinese zoos is a tragedy. We and others have been working for months to try and stop these elephants from being shipped because all that awaits them in China is a life of monotonous deprivation in zoos or circuses.
“As an elephant biologist used to observing these magnificent animals in their natural wild habitat, I am devastated by this outcome.”
The Humane Society released a video and photos which it said shows the small elephants a week ago being held in a fenced in area at Hwange National Park.
Zimbabwean wildlife authorities did not comment on the statement.
The Zimbabwe Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had tried to get a court order to get access to the young elephants, to determine if they were receiving proper care.
Zimbabwe has one of Africa’s largest elephant populations. It seeks to be allowed to hunt and export more of them to ease pressure on the animals’ habitat and raise badly needed money for conservation.
At least 55 elephants have starved to death in the past two months in Hwange as drought dries up water sources and overcrowding results in massive loss of habitat. The park has a carrying capacity of 15,000 elephants but is home to more than 50,000, authorities say.
A Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesman said the country “is currently capturing and translocating live animals to approved appropriate and acceptable destinations within and outside the country.”
The spokesman, Tinashe Farawo, told The Associated Press that Zimbabwe is still allowed to export elephants, noting that the near-ban imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, simply means there should be more consultations on the suitability of the destination.
Zimbabwe has previously exported elephants and other animals to China, Dubai, Europe and the United States to raise money for conservation, Farawo said. It is not known how much money Zimbabwe receives for the animals.
Conservation groups have expressed concern about the sale and treatment of the elephants.
In its statement Thursday on its High Court filing, the ZSPCA said it was part of a taskforce that included ecologists from the parks agency tasked with inspecting facilities where the captured animals were kept.
The taskforce also inspected the foreign facilities of recipient locations “predominantly in China.”
Following two visits in 2016 to various facilities in China, the taskforce concluded they were not ready to receive elephants and that further inspections would be required before any animals could be shipped. The ZSPCA said it was not aware of any further visits to China.
The organization said that after being alerted that Zimbabwe’s parks agency was resuming exports of elephants late last year, its inspectors found 35 young elephants held captive in Hwange National Park.
While the elephants had adequate food, shelter and water, the inspectors noted that they were “all severely stressed.”
The ZSPCA statement said guards with the parks agency blocked its inspectors on six occasions when they sought further access to the animals this month after receiving “an unusually high number of calls” from the public expressing concern that the animals were not in good health but would be shipped to China.
The ZSPCA said it is “gravely concerned as to the obstruction, secrecy and lack of transparency” and is calling for “a full-scale investigation.”
Most countries that are parties to CITES have successfully lobbied to limit the sales of elephants, to the dismay of some African countries that say they are struggling with large numbers of the animals.