Elephant export plan damages Swaziland’s wildlife reputation
Melissa Reitz
19 October 2015

With severe drought in Swaziland, US zoos are yet again taking the opportunity to import elephants and 18 wild born elephants have been earmarked for a life of captivity .They will be split into arbitrary groups of five females and one male and will be shared out amongst three US zoos. 

Eleven elephants were taken from Swaziland to the US in 2003 despite major opposition from animal rights activists in 2003

Permits have been requested from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Swaziland wildlife authorities to move the wild elephants.

A statement by Roomforrhinos.org, which has promised to donate US$1 million to rhino anti poaching, is a collaboration of  three zoos: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo and Dallas Zoo – which appeared on the 2008 IDA International list of 10 worst zoos for elephants – says the drought-stricken Makaya and Hlane game reserves in Swaziland cannot sustain the elephant population (of roughly 32) and some need to be removed to prevent degradation of the landscape and to save endangered rhinos. The zoos claim they are saving the elephants from culling while promoting rhino conservation.

But since the elephant range in the two game reserves consists of small fenced areas, their impact on vegetation is confined and they are unlikely to pose any significant threat to rhinos or other wildlife roaming in the greater areas of the reserves.

The announcement for the proposed export comes soon after the release of South Africa’s NSPCA report on the welfare status of captive elephants. The report, a compilation of more than 10 years research, states that all captive elephants endure welfare deficiencies.

Although recognising Swaziland’s drought conditions and the challenge in finding alternative wild locations, the NPCA states that relocating wild elephants into captivity remains unacceptable and it will impact on their sensitive social nature.

“Even if the three American zoos state that they will provide large enclosures, the best care, foraging opportunities, large pools; it will still be breaking up family groups and sending wild elephants, some already 20 years old, to a life of captivity,” says Isabel Wentzel of NSPCA’s Wildlife Protection Unit.

The same reasons of overpopulation that are used to validate this importation were also cited in the 2003 transaction which begs the question why Swaziland has not actively managed its elephant population to keep numbers sustainable and to prevent further exports into  captivity.

According to Reilly, seven elephant bulls were vasectomised in 2009 and population growth has slowed, but she says the impact is still too high and unsustainable. “Female contraception is not an option as it is too expensive and very disruptive for the elephants.”

However, contraceptive vaccines are widely used on female elephants in small reserves in South Africa without any detrimental health or social effects and have proven to be the least disruptive way to limit elephant fertility.

Contrary to the situation, SA law states that no elephants may be taken from the wild into captivity nor exported, save for exceptional purposes agreed to by the Minister.

This legislation is the backbone to managing elephants and as a result, South Africa’s elephants remain largely safe from the kind of decision that Swaziland is about to make for its vulnerable population.