During the capture operation in the 14 000 square kilometre Hwange National Park, game-capture specialists working for Victoria Falls-based tourism operator Shearwater Adventures isolated 12 elephants from family groups, darted the animals and removed them to holding bomas to be trained for use in captivity.
The capture flies in the face of the International Conservation Union (IUCN) and African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) recommendations that no wild elephants should be captured for use in captivity. The AfESG recommendation is endorsed by the South African-based Elephant Managers and Owners Association (Emoa) and increasing number of scientists, and local and international animal welfare groups, which say removing animals from family groups is psychologically damaging to both the captured animals and the wild herds and that training of elephants is inherently cruel.
Allen Roberts, the chief executive officer of Shearwater, said that the capture team involved was "highly respected" and while the capture was undertaken for commercial reasons it also helped relieve pressure on elephant populations in the park.
"Shearwater specifically targeted young elephants that were displaying evidence of deterioration and which we believed we could help resuscitate," Roberts said.
"Twelve animals have now been translocated to Victoria Falls. Sadly one elephant did not survive the translocation."
He said that the elephant-back safari in Zimbabwe, and one near Victoria Falls in Zambia, employed more than 200 people and brought about $2-million (about R15-million) to the regional economy.
Glynis Vaughan, the chief inspector of the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZimNSPCA), said that her organisation was outraged by the capture of the elephants and would approach the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to request that no further captures be permitted.
"What is happening to these animals is horrendous. We are definitely going to prosecute..
Jason Bell-Leask, the southern African director of the United States-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), condemned both the capture of wild elephants and the use of the animals in the elephant-back safari industry.
"It is disgraceful and a shame that any country or organisation is prepared to sanction the abuses inherent in capturing wild elephants and subjecting them to lives in captivity," Bell-Leask said.
Elephant-back safaris are conducted by a number of operators in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia and Botswana.
At present no elephant culling is undertaken in any of these countries and young elephants are highly sought after by the industry.
The first elephant-back safaris in South Africa were started five years ago and about 100 elephants are used by the industry.
Elephant safari operators say that no cruelty is involved in training elephants and most use the "reward" system of training that entails offering the animals food when they obey commands.
Those opposed to the industry say that training elephants is cruel and that the huge animals also pose a danger to handlers and tourists alike.
In South Africa two handlers have been killed, at least two visitors have been injured and at least one elephant has been put down because its owners felt it was a danger to humans.
The training of elephants in South Africa is largely unregulated except for provisions of the Animal Cruelty Act and the Performing Animals Protection Act and the industry is coming under increasing scrutiny by conservation authorities. This month conservation officials from all provinces requested the department of environmental affairs and tourism to issue a directive prohibiting the capture of elephants for use in captivity.
The provincial authorities said that "the removal of wild elephants for captivity is of no/little value to conservation and carries significant risks. It is not considered a humane alternative to culling".
Leseho Sello, the chief director of Biodiversity and Culture at the environment department, said this week: " can't make an overriding decision on the matter; it is a provincial issue. The minister is not in a legal position to take that action."