Celebrities including Joanna Lumley, Brigitte Bardot, Judi Dench and Ricky Gervais have attacked the EU over its failure to prevent baby elephants being "snatched" from the wild to be put in zoos around the globe.
The bloc is expected vote against a proposed ban that will prohibit the transfer of the animals to facilities around the world, which is expected to take place next week.
In a letter appealing directly to Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, they say: "It would be obscene for the EU to endorse snatching wild baby elephants and condemning these beautiful leviathans to a life of captive misery. "
Other high-profile signatures include Pamela Anderson, Bryan Adams, actresses Jenny Seagrove and Virginia McKenna and presenter Nicky Campbell. In the note, they explain that elephants are highly social creatures and often die in transit to zoos around the world, or shortly after they arrive.
There has also been evidence of elephants languishing alone in captivity in China when they are very social creatures, they added.
In order for a ban to pass, two thirds of countries must vote for it at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which kicked off on Saturday with delegates from around the world in attendance.
While a preliminary vote showed that 46 countries were in favour, with 18 against it and 19 abstaining, the EU did not take part and thus it was not fully approved.
As it represents 28 countries, it is feared that it could be voted down next week because the bloc spoke against the “ban” before the vote. It's reasoning for voting against as that it would restrict African countries from being able to control their elephant populations.
The United States also voted against.
African elephants in Zimbabwe and Botswana are internationally protected against trade under the CITES convention - but with an annotation that allows live elephants to be exported to “appropriate and acceptable” destinations.
Under this loophole, Zimbabwe has been capturing live baby African elephants in the wild and exporting them to zoos.
Over the last 20 years, almost 200 mainly young elephants have been taken from their families and herds in southern Africa, and shipped around the world to live in zoos and other captive facilities, predominantly in China.
The open letter reads: "The world has been shocked to see distressing video and photos of terrified baby African elephants being rounded up and snatched from their families in the wild, to be shipped to zoos and circuses around the world.
"Elephants are social and emotional creatures who form strong family bonds and suffer tremendously in captivity. Captured elephants can face horrific abuse during the capture process. Footage of wild-caught baby elephants awaiting export from Zimbabwe shows calves being beaten and kicked during capture. Some elephants have died during transit or shortly after arrival.
"We call on all EU Environment ministers and the Finnish presidency, representing the EU as a 28 voting bloc at the CITES meeting, to reflect the position of the majority of African elephant range states, the great majority of EU citizens, and leading elephant experts and support the proposal to end the export of wild-caught elephants for captive use. "
The letter, organised by Humane Society International, the Born Free Foundation, World Animal Protection and The David Sheldrake Wildlife Trust, has the backing of 32 African nations and 55 elephant conservation charities.
Audrey Delsink, an elephant biologist who works for the Humane Society International, said: "Elephants are social and sentient beings, and studies have revealed that wild elephants demonstrate behaviours associated with grief, self-awareness and compassion. The loss of captured individuals causes sustained psychological trauma for both the captured elephant and the remaining family.
“Public opinion is shifting and people throughout the world are appalled by the capture of baby elephants from the wild for export to zoos. If the EU scuppers this progressive CITES protection next week it will be vastly out of step with the compassionate views of its citizens.”
Mark Jones, Head of delegation for the Born Free Foundation, said: "The public is increasingly distressed at the plight of elephants in captivity and sanctuaries in the US, Brazil, Europe and elsewhere are now doing their best to care for numerous elephants that are being increasingly shed by traditional captive facilities in the West. If the EU scuppers this progressive and positive CITES measure next week it will demonstrate just how massively out of step EU leaders are with the compassionate views of its citizens ."