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Importing of six elephants for Sedgwick County Zoo nears federal approval

Sedgwick County Zoo elephants Cinda, left, and Stephanie were a popular attraction at the Sedgwick County Zoo before Cinda died in 2014 leaving Stephanie the zoo’s lone elephant. Since Cinda’s death, bringing more elephants to the zoo has been a top priority for zoo officials.
Sedgwick County Zoo elephants Cinda, left, and Stephanie were a popular attraction at the Sedgwick County Zoo before Cinda died in 2014 leaving Stephanie the zoo’s lone elephant. Since Cinda’s death, bringing more elephants to the zoo has been a top priority for zoo officials. File photo

It looks like Stephanie will be getting company at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

A federal agency has found no reason to deny permits for the transfer of 18 elephants from Swaziland to three American zoos.

“Issuing the import permit for the 18 elephants is the preferred action,” according to a pre-publication document on regulations.gov.

The final environmental assessment is scheduled to be published Friday in the federal register by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Sedgwick County Zoo is expected to receive six elephants for its new Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley, which is planned to open on Memorial Day weekend. Currently, it has just one elephant, Stephanie.

The agency determined the import “will not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment under” the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The agency was tasked with making sure the import was legal under federal and international laws governing endangered species transfers across borders.

Last fall, the Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo applied for the permits to receive the elephants from a wildlife trust in Swaziland, a small southeastern African monarchy.

The trust, Big Game Parks, says there are too many elephants in its parks and that they are harming vegetation that the black rhino, a critically endangered species, relies on. The trust said the elephants were to be killed if the import wasn’t approved.

The draft environmental assessment was published in October. The government received more than 8,000 public comments on the import by late November.

Several major animal rights groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, oppose keeping elephants in zoos.

“Elephants are intelligent, social, and wide-ranging animals who need to be in the wild, not separated from their closely knit families and displayed inside small enclosures where they will almost certainly suffer from trauma,” said Rachel Matthews of PETA in a statement.

Matthews worries the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision could set a precedent.

“Allowing this import is sending a dangerous message that will signal other African countries that there’s money to be made by sending elephants to American zoos,” she said late Thursday.

She said PETA isn’t considering legal action at this time. Other groups may try to block the permits; some sued over the last elephant import from Swaziland to American zoos. That happened in 2003 with zoos in San Diego and Tampa.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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