Dear Friends of Wildlife
It is like a nightmare repeating itself!
Back in 2003, and despite strenuous efforts by Born Free and others to prevent it, the Kingdom of Swaziland sold eleven of its elephant herd to two zoos in the USA. The declared reason? Over-population. At the time, Swaziland had a population of less than 40 elephants, many of whom had originated as orphans from South Africa , following a culling programme in Kruger National Park.
I remember well, as we argued in court for the importation to be denied, hearing the authorities in Swaziland declare that if the animals were not taken by the two US zoos “refrigerator space had been reserved for their bodies”.
The judge folded under such intense emotional pressure.
So, you would have thought that, subsequently, the Swazi authorities would have carefully worked out just how many elephants could be supported in the tiny country and its National Parks and then carefully managed their population through birth control to ensure that numbers were stable.
However, now Swaziland is preparing to ship a further 18 elephants (from its national herd which still stands at less than 40 animals) to the Dallas Zoo in Texas, Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, and Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, for an undisclosed sum and a promise of a million dollars for black rhino conservation in Swaziland.
First the proposed shipment must be approved by the US Fish & Wildlife Service but I understand that zoo officials anticipate that the agency will approve the application within the next month or so.
The Parks Authorities in Swaziland claim that the elephants are degrading their environment and that supplementary feed, in the form of hay, has had to be brought in from South Africa. The situation is exacerbated by a severe drought.
Apparently they also claim that there is no option but to ship the animals out and that there are no suitable places for them to be relocated to in Africa. Can that possibly be true? Can it be that there are no private reserves in the whole of Southern Africa that could take these animals and thereby allow them to live as wild a life as possible in their natural habitat?
The zoos must be praying the import is approved since the captive African elephant population held in US zoos is currently in terminal decline due to low breeding rates and compromised longevity – basically more elephants are dying than are being born. Without an injection of ‘new blood’ with breeding potential, experts predict that the US captive elephant population will cease to exist within the next few decades.
The zoos are seeking to represent this import as a ‘rescue’ and are critical of those who are opposed. According to Gregg Hudson, President and CEO of the Dallas Zoo, “Some people would rather see these elephants die than live in an accredited zoo”. I strongly disagree. I would rather see these elephants live in the wild – where they belong!
With my sceptical hat on, I suspect that another reason for the zoos’ desire to import elephants is not only to bolster their dysfunctional captive breeding programmes but to populate new, expensive and yet meagre facilities. The new $75m African Grassland Project at the Henry Doorly Zoo features a 4.5 acre elephant facility costing about US$15m; the Dallas Zoo’s Wilds of Africa confines its elephants to about 4.2 acres; while Zambezi River Valley at the Sedgwick County Zoo covers 5 acres at a cost of $10.6m (and features a boat ride…). These costly facilities don’t even begin to compare to the range of a wild elephant family which can extend to hundreds of thousands of acres.
This is wrong on so many levels. The decision of Swaziland to have elephants in the first place; their decision to export elephants again; the involvement of American zoos in this transaction; the compromised lives that these animals will now endure, thousands of miles away from their natural habitat; the ostentatious levels of zoo expenditure on tiny postage-stamp sized “habitats” (with grandiose names) which consume tens of millions of dollars, money that elephant conservation in the wild is crying out for……..
You can probably tell I am outraged by this news and I can only hope that the US authorities see the bigger picture and recognise that this really is not good for elephants. Quite the opposite.