On March 11, 2016, just after midnight, a National Airlines 747 landed at Fort Worth’s Alliance Airport with 17 African elephants from Swaziland. These elephants are victims of a controversial international scheme involving three US zoos—the Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, and Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo; the Swaziland government; Big Game Parks (BGP), a nonprofit trust in Swaziland; and the US government.
Swaziland is a small land-locked monarchy situated between South Africa and Mozambique. Only 39 elephants lived in Swaziland prior to this export—all within Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve. These areas are managed by BGP, which reportedly has a monarch-approved monopoly over wildlife management in the country. Instead of allowing its elephants to roam freely, BGP confines them behind fences to only approximately 6 and 19 percent of the park and reserve, respectively.
In October 2014, the Dallas Zoo requested permission from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to import the Swaziland elephants. In its application, the zoo claimed that the proposed elephant import would help achieve elephant population objectives in Swaziland, improve the genetics of captive African elephants, and promote Swaziland’s rhinoceros conservation goals. In an agreement with BGP, the zoos committed $450,000 in funding over five years to support wildlife protection—particularly rhino conservation—in Swaziland.
No meaningful effort was made by BGP or the zoos to find an alternative to removing the elephants from the wild (e.g., removing fences, expanding the size of fenced areas for elephants, translocating the elephants to other habitat, expanding the use of chemical or surgical fertility control treatments). It should be noted that the African Elephants Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature—which includes the world’s premier elephant experts—“does not endorse the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use,” as it does not benefit elephant conservation in the wild.
Approximately one year after the application was submitted, the USFWS sought public input on the proposed import, triggering a cascade of opposition. Only then did the zoos and BGP claim that Swaziland’s seven-year drought necessitated the reduction of its elephant population due to habitat deterioration or that, if the elephants were not exported, they could be culled. In January 2016, despite a host of legal issues and the ever-growing scientific evidence of the physical and psychological deprivation, injuries, and reduced life expectancy of elephants in captivity, the USFWS issued the permit.
Not only did BGP and the US zoos violate the terms of the permit application by capturing the elephants prior to receiving all required permits, but Swaziland’s Game Act, as amended, doesn’t permit the capture and export of live elephants. Furthermore, Swaziland is operating contrary to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as BGP acts as both the country’s management and scientific authorities, whereas CITES calls for these entities to be independent. Despite a lawsuit challenging the issuance of the permit and adequacy of the associated environmental impact assessment, BGP and the zoos expedited their plan to transport the elephants to the United States after the death of one of the captive elephants in Swaziland.
As Swaziland’s elephants are listed on Appendix I of CITES, their export for primarily commercial purposes is prohibited. Unfortunately, neither CITES nor the USFWS consider export of live animals to zoos, regardless of how much money is exchanged or the potential revenue generated as a result of the trade, to be for primarily commercial purposes.
Swaziland is not the only African country exporting live elephants to foreign zoos. In July 2015, Zimbabwe exported 24 wild-caught elephants to China despite considerable international outrage. Previously, it had exported four elephant calves to China in 2012, only one of whom is believed to remain alive. Zimbabwe says it intends to export additional wild-caught elephants based on the USFWS decision allowing the import of Swaziland’s elephants; thus, a precedent has been set that could relegate more wild elephants to captivity.
In response to these exports, several countries have co-sponsored a proposed resolution to be discussed at the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties in September 2016. If passed, the resolution would limit future live trade in elephants to in situ conservation programs in the wild within the natural range of the elephant. AWI supports this proposal and will actively press all governments, including the United States, to vote in favor of this sensible and humane measure.
At the same meeting, a proposal submitted by Swaziland to legalize the sale of rhino horn from its white rhinos, including those found in Hlane Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve, will be discussed. If approved, the proposal would permit the one-off sale of 330 kilograms of stockpiled rhino horn removed from living rhinos or recovered from poached rhinos and an additional 20 kilograms per year to licensed retailers in the Far East. Swaziland claims that this sale could raise approximately $12 million, which it purportedly would reinvest primarily into rhino conservation. Rhino horn, although made of ordinary keratin, is worth more than gold in the Far East, where it is purchased as a status symbol by the wealthy, exchanged as a gift at social gatherings or in business deals, or used as an alleged cure for cancer and hangovers (despite no evidence of any medicinal value).
This proposal is likely to be subject to considerable criticism by many CITES member countries, given the ongoing rhino poaching epidemic in southern and eastern African range states. Legalizing any trade in rhino horn will stimulate demand for the product and, in turn, escalate the crisis. It is unknown whether the USFWS or the three zoos were aware of this proposal when orchestrating the export of Swaziland’s elephants, also for cash that would supposedly benefit Swaziland’s dubious efforts at rhino conservation.
Ultimately, just as the public is rejecting keeping orcas in captivity, the confinement of wild elephants by zoos and circuses must end. Given the proven intelligence, sentience, and complex social dynamics of elephants, these animals deserve to live in the wild, not to be kept in captivity where their physical and mental needs cannot be satisfied. While the 17 Swaziland elephants confined in the three zoos will never again experience life in the wild, hopefully they will be the last victims of USFWS ineptitude and the zoo industry’s greed and misguided attitude that such captivity promotes conservation.