Politics & Government

Why does tiny Swaziland want to send nearly half of its elephants to the United States?

This elephant at the San Diego Zoo is among those that have been imported from Swaziland.
This elephant at the San Diego Zoo is among those that have been imported from Swaziland. Associated Press

The Sedgwick County Zoo and zoos in Dallas and Omaha really want 18 African elephants from Swaziland.

And the elephants’ current homes, two national parks, really want them out.

Too many African elephants are destroying vegetation and habitats in two national parks that support other species, like vultures and rhinos, with higher conservation value.

That’s according to the application that the Dallas Zoo, on behalf of zoos in Wichita and Omaha, filed with the Fish and Wildlife Service seeking to import African elephants from Swaziland in southern Africa.

The Eagle obtained the application, with almost 1,100 pages of photos, diagrams, emails and documents, from the U.S. Department of the Interior through a records request. It sheds new light on the national parks in Swaziland and the applicants’ claims to the government about the transfer.

The zoos, in their application, say removing the elephants will help other endangered species.

But animal welfare advocates opposed to the transfer dispute how much damage the elephants cause to the national parks and other conservation efforts.

‘Not a high conservation priority’

Poaching, the illegal hunting of elephants for their ivory, has hurt the numbers of wild African elephants nearly everywhere. But southern Africa is a relative stronghold for the species.

About 279,000 elephants have been spotted there, according to data from 2013. By contrast, the rest of the continent has about 110,000 elephants.

Only about 39 elephants live in Swaziland, a monarchy sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. About the size of New Jersey, it is one of the smallest countries in the region.

Aggressive hunting left Swaziland without elephants from the 1940s until the mid-80s.

But the country received elephants from South Africa’s Kruger National Park in 1986 and again in 1994 through an elephant orphan relocation program. That’s the same national park that sent Stephanie and Cinda to the Sedgwick County Zoo in the early 1970s.

All Swazi elephants live in Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane Royal National Park, two of the three national parks run by a wildlife trust, Big Game Parks.

By 2003, the population had swelled to 38 elephants. Those numbers “exhausted … and degraded the habitat,” the application says.

So Big Game Parks reached an agreement with zoos in San Diego and Tampa to export 11 elephants to the United States. A legal fight with animal welfare groups ensued. Eventually, the lawsuit was settled and the elephants made the trip to their new homes in California and Florida.

The transfer of elephants to San Diego and Tampa was “a short-term remedy and the population continued to increase,” the parks’ 2014 conservation plan says.

Park officials say they now have about 39 elephants – beyond what the ecosystem can handle while it also supports other threatened and endangered species.

Large elephant herds are “not a high conservation priority,” park officials say.

“Swaziland’s small elephant population is non-essential to the sustainability of the Southern Africa regional meta-population,” the application reads. “Swaziland’s parks are too small for elephant herds of significance.”

Big Game Parks wants to trim the herds by about 40 percent by sending elephants to the United States, then have the population stabilize.

The trust would receive $450,000 over five years from the American zoos for conservation efforts and facility upgrades.

Rhinos, vultures vs. elephants

Swaziland’s African elephants are only one of 452 species of mammals, bird and reptiles observed at the trust’s three parks.

The elephants are popular with tourists. Swazis also deeply respect the elephants as a symbol of royalty. They view them as the country’s queen and the “mother of the nation.”

While popular and culturally significant, the elephants are doing serious damage, park officials say.

They’re destroying trees that the white-backed vulture, an endangered species, needs for its nests.

“Elephants within the compounds have destroyed most of the large trees that would otherwise be available for nesting raptors,” according to the conservation plan. “In fact, known nesting pairs have moved out of these areas since the elephant impact became apparent.”

“The largest acacia trees, some 300 to 500 years old, were killed by elephants.”

The country’s ecosystem and poaching laws make Swaziland a key player in international efforts to conserve the black rhino, a critically endangered species. A black rhino has not been killed by a poacher in Swaziland since 1989.

Elephants have destroyed trees the rhinos use for bedding sites. They compete over the same woody vegetation for food.

“The elephant herd has caused tremendous habitat degradation at a time when the priority conservation species, the black rhino, population is also growing within the compound,” the conservation plan says.

“Elephant trans-location may be the best option to enhance the habitat for rhinos.”

Doubt from import opponents

Opponents to the imports say the zoos’ narrative is misleading.

The national parks did not keep the population numbers under control after they sent elephants to the U.S. in 2003, said Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, a group that was one of the main plaintiffs in the legal fight against the government after those permits were approved.

“The problem was not solved 10 years ago by doing the same exact thing,” Roberts said. “History shows us removing wild elephants from Swaziland into American zoos actually does nothing to benefit the rhino population.”

Born Free was one of the main plaintiffs in the 2003 legal fight against the government after the permits were approved.

Several groups say the applicants are using the threat of killing the elephants to push the government into approving the permits.

“These elephants are only kept in small areas of each of the two parks,” said Catherine Doyle, director of science, research and advocacy for the Performing Animal Welfare Society. “They’re being careful with this and putting out this idea of a ‘rescue’ because they know that’s what plays well with the public.”

Doyle also said the zoos are immorally downplaying the value of elephants.

“It is not justifiable to cause harm to elephants for this purported good of another species,” Doyle said.

“It is shocking to read elephants are ‘not a priority’ because you’re talking about animals who are highly intelligent, sensitive and self-aware.”

Opponents want the zoos to consider alternatives like sanctuaries or protected areas.

“They could move the fence areas in the reserve so the elephants could have more vegetation,” Doyle said. “No one is looking at all of these different alternatives and for obvious reasons, because these zoos want to stock their exhibits with elephants.”

Roberts said he is worried history could keep repeating itself.

“What I see is no one dealing with this situation with any kind of long-term vision and Swaziland essentially becoming a wild breeding colony for captive American elephants,” he said.

Other options?

But the applicants say there are no other options besides exporting or killing the elephants to trim the herd numbers.

Big Game Parks says options in Africa aren’t ideal:

▪ Elephants would not be safe from poachers in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

▪ On the other end of the spectrum, Botswana and Namibia have so many elephants that the only demand would come from for-profit safaris, a commercial trade that’s not allowed under international law.

▪ South Africa, Swaziland’s largest neighbor, typically does not import elephants.

Opponents say the zoos must be prematurely dismissing options.

“One of the things that zoos have been saying is there’s no safe place for elephants in the wild for these elephants to go, but at the same time, these zoos are asking for people to contribute to their efforts to save elephants in the wild,” Doyle said.

Some animal rights groups are pushing for an extension of the public comment period, which could essentially delay the permit decision.

For now, the government will stop taking public comments on Monday.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

How they compare

African elephants

▪ Big Game Parks elephant population: 39

▪ Target population: 10 to 16

▪ African population: About 400,000 (2013 data)

▪ Conservation status: “vulnerable”

Black rhinos

▪ Big Game Parks population: “classified information for security reasons”

▪ Target population: 100

▪ African population: 5,055 (2013 data)

▪ Conservation status: “critically endangered”

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