The advocacy group Elephants DC provided this photo of an elephant caught in the wild and held at Hwange National Park in February. Zimbabwe has sold dozens of the young elephants to China. (Elephants DC)

As Zimbabwe's economy struggles, the government is preparing for a controversial export program. Hundreds of this country's elephants could soon be shipped to China -- a deal potentially worth millions of dollars.

The killing of Cecil the lion attracted little attention within Zimbabwe, despite an international outcry. But the elephant deal is becoming far more controversial, seen by critics as a desperate attempt to sell off precious natural resources.

[Zimbabwe charges farmer over killing of Cecil the lion, but not American dentist]

The Zimbabwe Independent reported last week that 24 of the country's elephants have already reached China and 170 are due to be shipped soon.

"The baby elephants, which are between two-and-a-half and five years old, are being given limited feeding as part of the preparations," the newspaper reported. The government has confirmed that 24 elephants have already been shipped to China, but has not said how many more are on the way.

Although the Zimbabwean government hasn't said how much the deal is worth, conservationists estimate that an elephant would likely be sold for roughly $50,000. The plan to sell the elephants to China is all the more controversial because demand for ivory among Chinese consumers has recently propelled poaching to historic levels. Hunters kill the elephants and hack off their tusks to get the ivory, which sells on the black market for nearly $1,000 per pound. It is used to make holistic medicine across much of East Asia.

The elephant deal between Zimbabwe and China was ruled legal by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which released a statement saying, "the export would not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild."

The elephants are said to be destined for Chimelong Safari Park in Guangdong Province of China, where wild animals often appear in circus-style performances. A travel story broadcast on CNN called the park "surreal, intriguing and disconcerting all at once."

Last month, photos of the elephants at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe awaiting their transport to China were leaked to National Geographic, causing an uproar among conservationists.

"Capturing wild elephant calves is counterintuitive to raising funds for conservation,” Mike Chase, the founder of Elephants Without Borders, told National Geographic. "It is a gross violation of animal welfare and might repel would-be visitors to a national park that has an exemplary ecotourism reputation.”

“These calves look really horrible,” Joyce Poole, co-founder of ElephantVoices, a Kenya-based research and advocacy organization, told National Geographic.

Last month, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe accused his fellow citizens of failing to protect Cecil, the famed lion shot by an American hunter.  The irony is not lost on Zimbabweans who are now watching as the government prepares to export its elephants.

More than 25,000 African elephants are killed by poachers every year, conservationists estimate.

Read more:

As the world mourned Cecil the lion, five of Kenya's endangered elephants were slain

Zimbabwe's Mugabe says his people failed to protect Cecil the lion

China pledges to end ivory trading -- but says the U.S. should, too