Export of Swaziland Elephants to US ZOOS : Saving Lives or Making Money
Melissa Reitz
16 November 2015

Despite strong opposition and a variety of alternatives, Swaziland’s Big Game Parks appears resolute in its decision to export elephants to US zoos, in what seems to be a decision motivated more by financial gain than conservation.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing an application for the importation of 18 wild African elephants from two Swaziland game reserves to three US zoos,

With their removal from the wild, the 18 elephants are to be broken up into groups of six for each zoo (1 male and 5 females), compromising the complex social behaviour and reliance on family units that is central to elephant behaviour. Three of the elephants are originally cull orphans from the Kruger Park and would have already suffered significant trauma from losing their family units as calves.

With drought taking its toll on Swaziland’s landscape Room for Rhinos, the organisation representing the three zoos says the importation is necessary to preserve territory which has been over-utilised by too many elephants at the Big Game Parks (BGP) managed Hlane and Makaya game reserves, and to create space and promote conservation for endangered rhinos.

An eye witness in Swaziland however claims that should the fences around the elephant enclosures be dropped there is sufficient vegetation in the greater reserve area to sustain the elephants until alternative solutions can be found. The enclosures separate the elephants from the rest of the reserves into areas of 4900 hectares at Hlane and 1190 hectares at Makaya respectively

“This is a human created problem caused by fencing the elephants off,” says the source.

Furthermore the Swaziland National Trust Commission (SNTC) which oversees four of the country’s seven reserves, says there is space and food in the remaining Swaziland reserves but SNTC had not been alerted of the export plan. “It seems this is being handled as a private transaction by BGP,” says a SNTC official.

Room for Rhinos and Big Game Parks claim the only choices are to relocate the elephants to the zoos or to cull them since habitat loss, legislation and poaching levels make relocation within Africa impossible. But with various options being presented as viable alternatives, no evidence can be found that they have done their homework properly.

“They haven’t even attempted to find more land or take down some of their fences which would give the elephants access to much larger areas,” says Dr Marion Garai, chair of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group in South Africa. “They have also not approached South Africa to see if anything can be done to place the animals.”

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs confirmed that the department would not decline a wild to wild importation if the relevant specifications were met.

Groupelephant.com, a global non-profit organisation supporting work on rhinos and elephants, has confirmed that they will assist BGP in relocating the 18 elephants in Africa.

The organisation says that although their overall preference would be for the elephants to stay in Swaziland, but they are looking into options in Mozambique and South Africa.

“Our preference would be for the elephants to remain in Swaziland on a larger range and we’d be willing to arrange compensation for the people involved as an alternative to the income they’d forego. But this would be on condition that no further activity of this nature take place and the implementation of a contraception program for the elephants, which we’d be willing to fund,” says CEO Jonathan Tager. “It is clear this whole thing is not about conservation but making money.”

A formal proposition is being prepared by groupelephant.com to present to Big Game Parks.

There is no independent CITES oversight in Swaziland, the official CITES authority falls on BGP head, Ted Reilly who, unconventionally, is both Scientific and Management authority. The elephant export permit request is thus submitted to BGP by BGP.

Furthermore Swaziland has been listed in CITES Category 3 which is comprises the worst 21 percent of parties that are believed to generally not meet the requirements for the implementation of CITES. If measures are not taken to remedy this by early next year, CITES may remove Swaziland’s right to commercial trade in CITES-listed species.

Conservationists, welfare experts and scientists across the globe state that sending elephants into captivity is unethical , based on unsound elephant management and non-scientific findings. In a statement they claim that because the elephants are enclosed in areas separate to the rhinos they cannot be impacting on rhino conservation or food.

Ecological observations confirm that rhinos and elephants don’t typically compete for food sources.

In its 2014 Conservation and Management Plan which has been submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, BGP states that “elephants have become a low conservation priority and in need of intense population management” and “both Hlane and Makaya maintain elephants for the purposes of tourism and cultural representation”. The report also highlights that BGP’s “overall target is to establish 100 black rhinos and 200 white rhinos in Swaziland”.

Could Swaziland conservationists be losing interest in their elephants? And since they have been commended for their successful anti-rhino poaching programme, have they decided that investing money and energy into fashionable rhinos is a better way forward?

So what’s in it for Big Game Parks and what do the zoos get out of such an expensive and delicate importation project?

According to Mark Reed, director of one of the zoos destined to receive six of the imported elephants, Sedgewick County Zoo, new elephant exhibits are highly lucrative.

“You get a good two-year bump and after that it settles down a little bit, but it’s always at a higher level than it was before,” says Reed.

“The zoos will open doors for us internationally and promote Swaziland,” says Ann Reilly, marketing manager for BGP.

Room for Rhinos has also promised $450 000, over five years, towards rhino conservation.

But is placing conservation needs of one species over that of another, while gaining financially, ethical? According to welfare experts, ecologists and animal rights activists around the world, it is not and an online petition urging US officials not to approve the import permit has been set up.

Studies and data collection by elephant and welfare experts such as the NSPCA has provided sufficient evidence that elephants living in captivity suffer from welfare deficiencies with negative impacts on their physical and emotional health, longevity and breeding rates.

Room for Rhinos claim that the importation will significantly contribute to establishing a sustainable African elephant population in North America, but with a birth mortality rate of 40%, little conservation value can be attributed to captive elephant breeding programmes. It is also questionable whether there is any justification at all for attempts to create a supposedly sustainable elephant population in North America

The lack of emotional wellbeing of captive elephants is more often than not heightened by the physical trauma of being moved from wild areas to the confinements of captivity. And captive elephants are frequently treated for foot and weight-related diseases, infertility, aggression and neurotic behaviour.

“The capture and removal of wild elephants from their home ranges and social groups is appalling and archaic, and the threat to kill elephants unless permits are issued is beyond unethical,” says Dr Joyce Poole, co-founder of ElephantVoices.

South Africa has taken note of the implications surrounding elephant welfare in captivity and moving elephants from the wild into permanent captivity has been illegal since 2008. Currently the NSPCA has a case pending against the Knysna Elephant Park owners for the illegal removal of wild elephant calves from a hunting operation in the Northern Province.

Elephants were reintroduced to Swaziland in 1994 when BGP homed 19 cull orphans from Kruger Park. By 2003 the population, which was split between Makaya and Hlane reserves, had apparently become too large and BGP arranged its first elephant export to San Diego Zoo in California and Lowry Park Zoo in Florida. Both zoos have appeared on In Defense of Animals ten worst zoos for elephants list and the export sparked an outcry by animal rights and welfare groups.

But twelve years later the story is being repeated and conservationists are questioning BGP’s elephant management saying that effective contraception methods for females are available and should have been used.

Sadly it seems that perhaps America is setting poor standards for elephant conservation, as since then elephants have been removed from the wild in Botswana in 2011 to a zoo in Pennsylvania and from Namibia in 2012 to a US accredited zoo in Mexico, both of which cited “rescue” as the motivation.

This import could bring the total to 41 wild elephants sent to captivity with US approval in 12 years.

The US Fish & Wildlife Services decision to issue the import permit is open to public comment until November 23.