"... if the permits are not issued by [the middle of this August], these elephants will be culled."
This ominous statement by Ted Reilly, head of the Swaziland Big Game Parks Department, was turned into a public relations mantra by the San Diego Zoo and the Lowry Park Zoo as they fought to import eleven elephants from Swaziland. To gain public support, San Diego Zoo has referred to the elephant purchase disingenuously as a "rescue" with machinelike regularity. This ploy succeeded, and on August 8, 2003, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled that these wild elephants could be imported into captivity in the United States.
The Herculean battle (or is it Sisyphean struggle?) to save the "Swazi eleven" was a bruising one, in which the Animal Welfare Institute joined other animal protection organizations in suing the U.S. Department of Interior to keep the elephants in their natural homes (see AWI Quarterly, Spring 2003).
The San Diego Zoo's website claims that "Conservation officials in Swaziland have spent years trying to find a place in Africa where these elephants might be legally moved and where they would be safe from poaching. Unfortunately no such place in Africa was discovered." Rubbish. In a short time, we managed to secure a commitment from the Chairman of Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa to take the elephants and allow them to live in a natural but protected condition on the Reserve's 7,700 acres set aside for elephants. This area is fenced and maintained by anti-poaching patrols. In America, the elephants would share a combined four and a half acres of unnatural living space. This was but one of many alternative locations that we identified.
The San Diego Zoo further maintains that it needs to snatch the elephants from their natural habitat because "Such a captive population contributes to the hedge against extinction of this species in the wild." But neither zoo has made any claim whatsoever that these elephants, or any of their offspring (should breeding ever succeed-a risky proposition for elephants, to be sure), would go back into the wild. If nothing else, both sides of this issue agree that elephants do not breed well in zoos.
And while the zoos bought these elephants for a meager $132,000 contribution to the Swaziland Big Game Parks Department, they have spent many millions of dollars on the small enclosures in which the elephants will have to live. The true wildlife conservation priority rests with significant in situ resource investments-this means millions of dollars to protect the wild population, not increase the number in captivity.
These eleven elephants came from South Africa originally, where their families were killed as part of a cull a decade ago. By Mr. Reilly's own admission, "They have all grown up together in a herd and are therefore familiar with each other." Now, eleven have been removed from the wild and then separated even further-four to Florida and seven to California. A simple, sad question comes to mind: What if they miss their friends?
Judge Bates recognized that Mr. Reilly's statement amounted to a bold threat and noted in his decision that "the Court does not appreciate such brinkmanship." But in the end, as long as Ted Reilly continued to claim that he would kill the elephants, despite the offer to translocate them humanely within the southern African region, the path was cleared for their arrival in the U.S. This is not an example of wildlife conservation; it's the height of humane avarice and arrogance.