The European Union (EU) is poised to vote in favour of exporting wild baby elephants from Africa to zoos worldwide – a trade condemned as “barbaric”.

Officials say they will allow the practice to continue, thereby overturning a recent decision by 46 other countries at a meeting of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) over the weekend. 

Conservationists have attacked the 28 nation bloc’s “shocking and shameful” stance, accusing the bloc of “condemning young elephants to a life of hell”.

The creatures, many of whom survive long journeys to captivity, mostly in China, have been filmed being beaten and kicked, and displaying clear signs of stress, according to animal-welfare groups.

Earlier this week at the world’s biggest wildlife conference, governments including African elephant-range states, backed an end to the practice of capturing the youngsters, mostly in Zimbabwe, to be sold to zoos and circuses.

Before the vote at committee stage, EU representatives spoke out against the proposed ban, telling delegates they would oppose it.

A technical glitch prevented the bloc from voting then, but the bloc is widely expected to attempt to overturn the ban in full session next week.

Representing 28 countries including the UK, the EU vote carries great weight in shaping the rules of Cites, which is the world’s watchdog for wildlife trade.