NAIROBI, Kenya May 14, 2010— -- Conservationists and game wardens are alarmed that Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has ordered several wild animals, including baby elephants too young to leave their mothers, be sent to North Korea as a gift -- and almost certain death.
But the decision, made by presidential decree and shrouded in secrecy, has drawn the ire of conservationist groups and local game wardens.
Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force based in Harare, told ABC News that he's been asked by members of Mugabe's own government to speak out against the impending action.
"We had one of the national park game wardens and others who were unhappy about the animals being exported come to us," said Rodrigues. "They asked me to expose it to the world."
According to Rodrigues the animals living in Zimbabwe's western Hwange National Park have been captured over the last two months. Witnesses have seen government vehicles carrying cages and putting animals in quarantine.
They don't know the exact number or species of all the animals yet, said Rodrigues, but zebras, giraffes, and baby elephants have been spotted. Two 18-month-old elephants are reportedly being prepared to be airlifted to the Asian country. Rodrigues said this will almost certainly result in their deaths.
"They are still suckling their mothers and need to do it until they are five years old. They are too young to be removed from their parents," he said. "Just the trauma alone may kill them."
Mugabe has a history of sending wildlife to countries, including North Korea, and the result has almost always been bad for the animals. In the 1980's Mugabe sent two rhinos, which are on the endangered species list, to North Korea. They died after only a few months there. Two other rhinos, sent to the Belgrade zoo in the former Yugoslavia around the same period, also died.
Zoos that meet international standards, like those in the United States, have expertly trained veterinarians and scientists who care for animals living in conditions very different than their natural habitat. Rodrigues doubts that North Korea, which is considered one of the most isolated countries in the world, has the facilities or capability to properly care for African wildlife.
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"They haven't even had a professional scientist from North Korea come to Zimbabwe to make sure that these animals can live in their habitat," said Rodrigues.
It's unclear when the move will occur, but witnesses say an airfield has been cleared and the park is on lock-down. Rodrigues and other conservationist groups are reaching out to the international community to try and stop the exchange.
There are international laws governing the transport of wild animals. but neither Zimbabwe nor North Korea, both heavily sanctioned countries, are known to adhere to international laws on almost any issue.
ABC News was unable to reach Zimbabwe's Park and Wildlife Management Authority for comment on the story.
Over the last few years, Zimbabwe has become increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Mugabe has worked to cultivate favor with other isolated nations such as North Korea and Iran, hoping for increased investment in Zimbabwe.
Last month he hosted Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Zimbabwe, calling him a great friend to the country, and called for the two countries to have a closer relationship, allied against the West. He also announced that the North Korea national soccer team would be training in Zimbabwe.
Giving away wild animals, one of Zimbabwe's greatest natural resources, is viewed as a thank you gift from the president to these countries and as a way to strengthen ties.
The problem with that, said Rodrigues, is that Mugabe is giving away something that does not belong to him.
"These animals are our heritage, they are for future generations," Rodrigues said. "The wildlife in Zimbabwe belongs to the Zimbabwe people. It doesn't belong to the president."