Eighteen elephants from southern Africa soon will be on a 747 headed to the United States.
A federal agency has officially approved the permits to import the elephants from Swaziland to zoos in Wichita, Dallas and Omaha.
The Sedgwick County Zoo, the Dallas Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium will each get six elephants under an agreement announced last fall. The 15 females and three males will come from a wildlife trust in Swaziland, a southeastern African monarchy sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique.
The Sedgwick County Zoo is scheduled to open its Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re excited but we still have got a lot of things to get done before we open this exhibit,” zoo director Mark Reed said Friday. “I’ve sort of looked at this as one long road and there’s all sorts of hurdles, and getting this is one hurdle.”
The zoos needed approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to transfer threatened or endangered species across borders.
African elephants are considered a threatened species because of poaching, the illegal hunting of elephants for their ivory. But southern Africa is a relative stronghold for the species on the continent.
It’s unclear whether animal welfare organizations will seek to block the transfer. Some say it could harm the mental and physical health of the elephants. They also contend the import is not primarily for conservation purposes but to make money, which would violate international law.
“We are very disappointed to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so egregiously disregard those standards,” said Carney Anne Nasser with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “It’s clear that’s the primary purpose for this import.”
“We’ll have to get together with our litigation department … to decide where to go from there,” she said.
The permit applicants said the transfer was necessary because the elephant population in two national parks was harming vegetation that other species, like the black rhino, depend on. Big Game Parks, the Swazi wildlife trust, said the elephants would be killed if the permits were not approved.
The zoos say the transfer will educate American audiences about the plight of the elephants and help fund conservation efforts.
“We want to do all we can for both species, elephants and rhinos,” Reed said in a statement issued by the three zoos Friday.
Under the agreement, the zoos will contribute $450,000 over five years to Big Game Parks for its conservation efforts.
From Swaziland to Kansas
The three zoos said in a statement that they would work to quickly get the elephants settled in America.
“It’s our desire to get them out of there as quickly as we can and get them acclimated and settled into their new homes here,” Reed said.
He added that he was excited to receive a copy of the permits Friday morning from the Dallas Zoo, the lead applicant.
“Nothing is final in life until you actually have that piece of paper in your hand,” Reed said.
The elephants will be flown to the United States aboard a chartered 747 cargo plane from Swaziland. Reed said he assumed the plane would stop in Dallas, Wichita and Omaha, in that order.
The three zoos will split the cost of the transfer. Reed said the final cost is unknown.
“Other than it’s going to be a lot,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, a lot. … It’s going to be very expensive.”
“I’ve said all along no one zoo could do this whole thing,” he said. “That’s why we got the three in collaboration.”
The zoo will probably have two staff members help with the flight, Reed said.
Conservationists and several major animal rights groups oppose placing wild elephants in zoos.
They say Asian and African elephants are social, migratory animals that should remain in the wild or in sanctuaries.
Nasser said the import “does not meet the letter and spirit” of international law against commercially trading endangered or threatened species.
“The zoos have publicly spoken about how much they’ve looked forward to ticket sales skyrocketing after babies are born,” she said. “And commercial purposes include captive breeding programs.”
Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, doubts the conservation value of taking elephants out of Africa.
“It doesn’t benefit these elephants. It doesn’t benefit Swaziland’s elephants. And it doesn’t benefit elephants across Africa,” Roberts said.
Some of the groups tried unsuccessfully to get the public comment period extended, which could have delayed the final decision.
About 85 percent of the nearly 8,000 public comments were “generally opposed to the proposal to import,” according to federal documents. Only 14 percent voiced support.
The agency said all but 71 comments were considered opinion, which is not what the Fish and Wildlife Service was looking for. The comments deemed “substantive” raised concerns over the elephants’ welfare and other alternatives not being considered. They also said the wildlife trust has a conflict of interest since it would benefit from the transfer.
Some groups sued unsuccessfully to block the last elephant import from Swaziland, in 2003 to zoos in San Diego and Tampa.
Rachel Mathews said her group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, will not sue but will monitor the welfare of the elephants.
Nasser and Roberts said they are still determining whether their organizations would sue.
“We know it’s a tough one to overturn, but I think it’s rather small-minded to suggest that there aren’t better alternatives,” Roberts said.
Both groups were both involved in the 2003 legal fight.