Conservationists and animal welfare activists are alarmed by reports that Zimbabwe may be preparing to export rhinos to China.

Fears of a renewal of Zimbabwe’s trade in live animals were raised late in August when Zimbabwe opposition senator, David Coltart, said in a Tweet:

“I’ve just been told that the Mnangagwa government has started exporting rhinos from the Matopos to China. If true this is a national outrage and must be stopped immediately. Aside from anything else this is a highly endangered group of rhinos with a pitifully small gene pool.”

Africa’s white and black rhinos are under extreme threat from poachers who kill them for their horns, used as an ingredient in traditional medicines, particularly in Viet Nam, but also in other parts of Asia. If Zimbabwe is trading in live rhinos, this would add to perils that threaten their survival in the wild: poaching, habitat loss and political conflict.

Trade in wild animals between Zimbabwe and China is not new. Over the past five years, Zimbabwe has earned a dubious reputation for selling wildlife to China and for flouting the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Most recently, it was reported that 31 young elephants captured in the Hwange National Park in January this year, were to be exported – probably to China. And in 2015, Network for Animals (NFA) sent a delegation to China to protest the purchase of 24 young elephants from Zimbabwe for the Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, China.

“NFA met with representatives of the Chinese government for the purpose of informing them that the trade in live elephants between Zimbabwe and China is not regulated by CITES,” said NFA’s chief campaigner, David Barritt.

“We tried to persuade the Chinese government to ban the purchase of wild animals from Zimbabwe, but our efforts failed. I am personally devastated by the news that Zimbabwe might be capturing rhinos for export to China.”

The claim by Coltart has dashed hopes that Zimbabwe’s new government, led by Emmerson Mnangagwa who was sworn in as the country’s new president in August, would reconsider or ban the trade in endangered wildlife between his country and China.

Experts in elephant behaviour have repeatedly raised concerns about the fact that it is typically juvenile elephants that are captured in Zimbabwe and exported to china. Elephants are social animals that live in well-defined family groups and when the strong familial bonds are broken elephants are known to be traumatised, and can become aggressive and dangerous. Photographs of the facilities at Chinese zoos and safari parks have shown them to be totally inadequate for properly housing and caring for wild elephants.