17 eles flown from Swaziland to Dallas, Wichita, & Omaha zoos
DALLAS, Texas––Why were 17 elephants stuffed aboard a custom-built Boeing 747 on March 8, 2016 and flown secretly to Alliance Field in Dallas?
It wasn’t just because trunks are not allowed as carry-on baggage on regularly scheduled commercial flights.
The 17 elephants, equivalent in weight to about 600 average human passengers, or 500 Walmart shoppers, flew for 10 hours, with a refueling stop in Dakar.
“The elephants then traveled to new homes at three separate zoos,” reported CBS. “Five of them were loaded onto flatbed trucks and driven to the Dallas Zoo,” where they are undergoing a 30-day quarantine.
“After a highway journey from north Fort Worth to south Dallas,” CBS said, “the elephants arrived safely at the Dallas Zoo shortly before 10:00 a.m.
“They were followed the entire way by a police escort, which kept other vehicles away.”
Twelve flew on
The other 12 were flown on to new elephant exhibits at the Sedgewick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.
“The Sedgwick County Zoo is scheduled to open its Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit on Memorial Day weekend,” noted Wichita Eagle reporter John Salazar.
The Henry Doorly Zoo, which has not had elephants since 2011, is soon to open a new African Grasslands exhibit. The previous Henry Doorly Zoo elephant exhibit was closed after Shenga, a 28-year-old female, was transferred to the Cleveland MetroPark Zoo, following the death of her longtime companion, Maliaka, 47.
Shenga became one of the first four residents of the MetroPark Zoo’s new five-acre Elephant Crossing exhibit. The other three Elephant Crossing elephants had occupied the previous MetroPark Zoo elephant exhibit, but had been boarded at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio after the old MetroPark Zoo elephant yard was closed in 2008.
Opposition to transfer
There was considerable opposition to the transfer of the 17 elephants to the U.S. from Swaziland.
Summarized CBS, “In Defense of Animals said that the elephants were being ‘kidnapped from the wild and their families.’ People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has also blasted the USFWS for allowing the import of the elephants. Friends of Animals filed a federal lawsuit to try and stop the USFWS permits,” issued on January 23, 2016, “but the court ruled in favor of the zoos last week.”
Friends of Animals, however, was attempting to try “try again” with a last-minute application for a temporary restraining order against the federal court verdict.
“The hearing was scheduled for March 17,” wrote Psychology Today “Animal Emotions” blogger Marc Bekoff, but the FoA petition became moot when the elephants arrived in the U.S.
Bekoff, a retired Colorado State University biology professor and author of numerous books about animal psychology, had helped to lead opposition to the transfer, covertly informed, he indicated, by inside sources.
“I learned about this secret transfer in an anonymous e-mail sent to me the same day by a very courageous and compassionate person,” Bekoff wrote. “I thought that others who are also working on stopping the shipment of the elephants also received the same e-mail, but I discovered they did not.”
One elephant died
Originally 18 elephants were to have been flown to the U.S.: five females and a male for each zoo participating in the deal.
However, “According to a statement from the zoos,” Bekoff said, “one of the 18 elephants died in December due to gastrointestinal issues. Zoo administrators kept this secret,” as well as the transfer date, “to avoid the wrath of animal rights activists, according to an e-mail I received yesterday.”
Fumed the Dallas Zoo in a statement posted online, “We are outraged at claims by animal extremists that these elephants were moved suddenly to circumvent their misguided efforts to delay this move via a lawsuit.”
Scientists as well as activists objected
Responded Bekoff, “Claiming that their critics are merely animal rights activists is terribly misleading. Numerous scientists, including those who have devoted their lives to studying elephant behavior and conservation and the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, along with non-academics, are deeply concerned and strongly critical” of the elephant airlift.
“Seventy-five scientists, conservationists and animal welfare advocates wrote a letter opposing the federal approval” of the transaction, Salazar mentioned. Many had also opposed a 2003 deal that sent 11 elephants from Swaziland to the San Diego Zoo and the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.
From Hlane Royal Game Park
All 28 elephants involved in the 2003 and 2016 transactions were taken from the Hlane Royal Game Park in Swaziland, a landlocked monarchy located between South Africa and Mozambique.
“The zoos defended the transfer,” summarized CNN, “saying the animals were set to be killed to make room for rhinos at the Swaziland facilities.
Rhinos & elephants
Rhinos and elephants do not normally compete for habitat. Rather, they tend to co-exist within the same range. Rhinos in the wild eat mostly grasses and low-growing shrubbery; elephants use their trunks to pull down foliage from tree canopies, or push over trees, then strip foliage from them.
But neither rhinos nor elephants in Swaziland have been eating normally in recent months, according to the conservation organization Room for Rhinos, which endorsed the elephant transfer.
Trucking in hay
“The intention is to save the 18 Swaziland elephants and relieve pressure on other park wildlife, such as rhinos, which are suffering from the worst drought in the nation’s history,” Room for Rhinos told John Vidal of the British newspaper The Guardian. “These conditions, combined with already degrading park land, require that hay be trucked in daily from South Africa to feed them.”
The elephants, opined Room for Rhinos, “must relocate to a new home, or be culled in order for Swaziland to meet its conservation plan goals of avoiding elephant overpopulation and making room for rhinos,” who are relatively well protected in Swaziland, amid intensive poaching pressure elsewhere in Africa, including South Africa.
The planned elephant purchase “escalated to a rescue mission last fall due to this state-of-emergency drought,” claimed Dallas Zoo president Gregg Hudson.
“In addition to moving the elephants,” wrote Vidal, “all three zoos have also agreed to spend $450,000, over several years, on black rhino conservation.”
Countered Groupelephant.com, “The decision to export [the elephants] to U.S. zoos has nothing to do with the well-being of the elephants. It’s purely a money-making transaction for Swaziland and the zoos involved.”
Nowhere to go nearby in Africa
Groupelephant.com offered to pay the cost of relocating the elephants from Swazliland to South Africa, but Jacques Flamand, described by Vidal as “a wildlife vet working on a black rhino range expansion project” for the World Wildlife Fund in South Africa, said that would not solve the problem.
“There is nothing left for the wild animals to eat in some places. There is no grass, no moisture. A lot of natural [water] pans have dried up. Kruger National Park in South Africa,” the largest elephant habitat in the region, “is very dry, and Zululand has had no rain at all. It’s not looking pretty,” Flamand said.
However, Flamand added, “The drought is affecting more [of] the animals which graze but not so much those that browse,” such as elephants and giraffes. “Animals like wildebeest, white rhino and buffalo are badly hit,” Flamand said. Scavengers,” including lions and painted dogs, “are taking advantage of the drought,” which “weeds out your weaker animals.”
Starving waifs or money magnets?
Video of the elephants taken by TV news crews upon their arrival in Dallas and Omaha indicated that they were severely underweight.
But Bekoff, for one, was not convinced that the elephants had to come to the U.S. to be assured of square meals.
“Elephants [in zoos] generate a lot of money,” Bekoff wrote. “They also are used as breeding machines and transferred around as if they’re non-feeling, non-sentient objects, who are expected to perform on demand to make more elephants who will spend their lives in captivity. A lot of money also is involved in keeping elephants in cages. Sedgwick County Zoo director Mark Reed has noted, “It’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’ we will have young elephant calves born here. That’s going to skyrocket the attendance like nothing ever has here before.”
But that is presuming the newly built current generation of zoo elephant habitats are more successful in inducing elephants to mate and rear young than the habitats they are replacing, and many similar zoo elephant habitats that have been closed in recent years after decades of failed breeding efforts.
Summarized Seattle Times staff reporter Erik Lacitis after the January 2016 death of Chai, 37, a female Asian elephant who had been transferred from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to the Oklahoma City Zoo in May 2015, “A 2012 Seattle Times investigation found that for every elephant born in a zoo, an average of two elephants die. Zookeepers had tried to artificially inseminate Chai at least 112 times. She had given birth to one daughter, Hansa, who died in 2007 at age 6½ of a herpes virus. The investigation also found that infant mortality among zoo elephants is 40%, nearly three times the rate in wild elephant populations.”
Meanwhile in Zimbabwe
“In Zimbabawe,” Vidal mentioned, “where a state of disaster has been declared, there is growing concern that herders are driving their cattle into game parks in search of grass. Wildlife is generally more resilient to drought than livestock, but thousands of cattle have reportedly died, with millions more at risk.”
Drought has already become a pretext for the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority to export elephants to zoos, with further exports expected.
Nat Geo exposé
Recalled Adam Cruise, for National Geographic on January 1, 2016, “In October 2014, tens of young elephants were taken from their family groups in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, where they were held in a capture unit for eight months until July 2015. That’s when 24 were flown to the Qingyuan quarantine facility in Guangdong Province before being transferred to Chimelong Safari Park, also in Guangdong. In September 2015, National Geographic reported that the elephants in China were being mistreated and were slipping into poor health.
“Previously, in 2012,” Cruise continued, “Zimbabwe exported eight elephants to China. Only four survived the journey. Another three died shortly after arriving in China, leaving only one surviving elephant.”
“Willing to export more”
Nonethelesss, said Zimbabwe minister of environment, water, and climate Oppah Muchinguri, on a New Year’s Eve visit to the Qingyuan facility, “We are happy that young African animals have been well accommodated here in China. We are willing to export more in the years to come.”
Zimbabwe claims to have 85,000 wild elephants, nearly twice as many as the estimate accepted by the African Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.