Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe CNN  — 

The cellphone footage reveals rows of steel cells stretching along a concrete floor. Behind each set of bars, a juvenile African elephant, their tusks just barely showing. One elephant presses its head into the corner of its prison-like confinement.

Zimbabwean officials legally captured these highly intelligent and social animals in Hwange National Park. Now, they will be broken and put on display for tourists in China.

By the end of this month, as more and more experts weigh in on the deep trauma suffered by captured elephants, a treaty governing international animal trade will halt the export of live elephants from Zimbabwe and other countries in Southern Africa.

Activists say they fear that the opaque trade could now move underground.

A screenshot taken from cellphone footage shows a caged young elephant in China.

Stuck in a holding pen

A vast park on Zimbabwe’s westernmost frontier, Hwange is one of the continent’s best spots for seeing giant elephant herds.

But few of the tourists entering the main gate are aware that just a few miles away to the southeast is a large boma compound, notorious among animal rights groups as the center of Zimbabwe’s efforts to sell elephants.

Armed with satellite coordinates provided by a source, we drove to the edge of the compound to try and see the elephants allegedly still inside.

“I have no idea about that,” a manager says, when asked about the elephant boma, a kind of holding pen before translocation.

We were quickly asked to leave, but Chrispen Chikadaya, a senior inspector with the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA), is one of the few people who has gotten inside.

Chikadaya began hearing the rumors late last year that park authorities were rounding up breeding herds and capturing juveniles for export.

Witnesses told him that wranglers were grabbing elephants old enough to survive without their mother’s milk, but small enough to squeeze into a freight box to China.

“They experience severe stress; they don’t have the freedom they have to move around like they do in the wild. If you put them in cages, you have now taken away the wild in them,” says Chikadaya.

Footage courtesy of Humane Society International released earlier this year.

Video released by Humane Society International shows the young mammals pacing back and forth, behavior often exhibited by stressed elephants. Predictably, the images sparked outrage.

“This is fiction. People act like we don’t love these animals, that we are abusing them. It is not true, because we are looking after our animals very well,” says Tinashe Farawo, a spokesman for Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks).

He says that Zimbabwe has legally translocated animals to zoos, circuses and sanctuaries for decades without much fuss.

“We have moved animals to the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This is not a new phenomenon in this country,” he says. “We think people should be scientific and ask what the facts are, not the emotions.”

Intelligent and sociable animals

Well-known elephant biologist Joyce Poole scoffs at the emotion-versus-science argument.

After studying elephants in the field for decades, she believes that they are uniquely intelligent and ill-suited for confinement.

“Some critics say we are ascribing human characteristics towards elephant, but we are not. These are elephant characteristics. They are capable of empathy, of self-awareness, understanding death and compassion. This is the kind of scientific evidence that Zimbabwe is ignoring,” Poole says.

She says, like us, elephants are highly social animals – confine them and they get bored, depressed, aggressive and sick.