By Franz Smets
HAVANA TIMES (dpa) — The Namibian authorities have launched a large operation to trap African big game and take it to a national park near the Cuban capital of Havana later this year, provoking an angry response from conservationists.
The plan is to catch a total of 148 elephants, lions, rhinos and other species in the Namibia’s Waterberg National Park, quarantine them and fly them out to Cuba in a few months’ time.
The animals would thus leave their expansive home – measuring some 400 square kilometers – for the national zoo park to the north of Havana, just over 3 square kilometers in size.
The park currently holds about 850 animals, according to the Cuban authorities.
The intention is to create a kind of “Cuban Ark,” with male and female animals of each species to be flown across the Atlantic.
The operation is also to involve antelopes, buffalos, hyenas, porcupines, jackals, foxes, ostriches, vultures and honey badgers. It is expected to be complete by the end of 2013.
The idea arose when Cuban President Raul Castro visited Namibia in 2009. The two countries enjoy good relations, after the communist Caribbean island lent its support to Namibia’s liberation movement in the 1970s.
On July 5, Namibian Tourism and Environment Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah and the director general of the Cuban national zoo, Miguel Luis Abud Soto, signed the documents launching the project.
The Namibian authorities have placed a value of close to a million dollars on the animals. The Cubans have expressed gratitude for the gift.
“We are pleased to be acquiring fresh genetic material for our national zoo park,” Abud Soto said at the signing ceremony.
“We will do everything to ensure that the animals are well looked after. They will find a natural habitat in which they can roam half-wild.”
But animal conservation organizations have expressed outrage, charging that the mass animal transport is being done for commercial reasons.
“It’s sad to see that these animals are being taken out of their natural habitat and sent to a foreign country where they will be robbed of their freedom,” read a statement from one South African animal protection body.
The rhinos were a particular public attraction on account of their endangered status, the German conservation agency Pro Wildlife said.
“We urge you to halt the trapping of these African wild animals and to release them again into the wild,” Pro Wildlife President Christoph Schmidt wrote in a letter to the Namibian government.
He said it was particularly cruel to separate elephants from their herd, and that neighbouring South Africa had halted this practice.
Nandi-Ndaitwah said the quarantine facilities, called bomas, were an investment for the future, indicating that the current trapping project would not be the last.
“We have a number of programs for making available animals from parks, communal enclosures and new farms, and to use the bomas again,” she said.
Cuba is also thinking ahead.
“Once our people have acquired the necessary expertise, they will be able to assist parks throughout Latin America,” Abud Soto said.