Q&A: Dallas Zoo rescues Swaziland elephants

We’re thrilled that you’re excited about our rescue of elephants from drought-stricken Swaziland, Africa. Here’s a Q&A that addresses the most frequent questions:

One of Dallas Zoo's new female elephants eating bamboo.

One of Dallas Zoo’s new female elephants eating bamboo.

How many elephants did each zoo receive?

Dallas Zoo is caring for five new elephants, four females and a male. Sedgwick County Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo have six each, five females and one male.

Are any of the elephants babies? No; all are weaned, including the daughter who’s with her mother.

Would some people rather see them die than in your zoo?

Yes. We’ve heard that numerous times from activists. Knowing what we do about our habitat and the lives we can provide these elephants, we strongly disagree. And we believe the vast majority of reasonable people agree with us, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of messages of support we’ve received. We’re proud to step up and offer them an enriching new home and the safe, healthy future they deserve.

Why did the elephants need a new home?

Two reasons: wildlife management, and drought.

Swaziland is a small, landlocked country in southern Africa, about the size of New Jersey. About 1.25 million people live there, vs. nearly 7 million in Dallas-Fort Worth alone.

Though technically classified as “wild,” Swaziland’s elephants have spent their entire lives in managed and protected care inside two non-profit wildlife parks. There is little true “wild” left in Africa anymore — most elephants live in managed wildlife parks that require vigilant security to protect them from poachers.

The elephant population was destroying the land and resources needed for wildlife conservation inside the parks. Elephants destroy trees, eat their way across grassy plains, and change dense forests into barren landscapes. This has devastating impacts on the landscape and other wildlife species that depend on it.

Swazi wildlife managers are focusing on the more critically endangered rhino population. But the rhinos have few resources, due to the elephant destruction.

Researchers and scientists from accredited zoos have tried to help control the elephant population – relocating 11 animals 12 years ago and even performing costly vasectomies on several bull elephants – but Swazi officials were still faced with too many elephants to accomplish their management goals.

They plan to continue to care for smaller elephant herds moving forward, with the goal of establishing groups of not more than five elephants in each park, a sustainable number that will allow elephants, rhinos and other wildlife to thrive, too. As part of that plan, these elephants had to be relocated or be culled. That may seem to some like a harsh move, but that decision was made only after much consideration by experienced Swazi wildlife officials who must manage the country’s resources.

And the drought?

Swaziland and other countries in southern Africa are suffering under the most severe drought in their history. Just this week, Swazi officials announced that they could no longer produce electricity due to a lack of water, so they now must import 100 percent of its power from other countries. The United Nations is providing aid to more than 300,000 people, and more than 100,000 animals have died.

While this project began as a wildlife conservation effort, the drought increased its urgency. We have been paying to provide food and water for these elephants for nine months, freeing Swaziland to spend its resources to try to keep their other wildlife alive, from kudu to crocodiles and rhinos.

Were the elephants imported legally?

Yes. There has been a lot of false and misleading information shared, but the permit to relocate these elephants is legal and was issued after an intense review and approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We were legally entitled to transport the elephants, and we knew we needed to act without further delay because the situation in Swaziland is deteriorating.

The USFWS approved the permit after its scientifically rigorous analysis determined that the proposed import meets regulatory requirements under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The details of the transportation and importation also were coordinated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

 Did you rush this move ahead of a court hearing?

Absolutely not. Since our permit was granted on Jan. 20 after months of review, we focused on all of the logistics involved with moving the elephants safely. You can’t suddenly charter a 747 and arrange safe transport of 17 massive animals in a day or two. We even custom-built their travel crates. Those details alone should tell you that this wasn’t done suddenly.

Here’s what really happened: A small activist group sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, hoping to block the move. However, they never asked the Court to prohibit the move while their lawsuit proceeded. They had weeks to do so, and did not. They even admitted to the court after they filed their lawsuit that the zoos could decide to move the elephants at any time.

After the transfer process was well under way, these activists suddenly decided to ask that the transfer be blocked. The federal judge was reached late at night, and held an emergency hearing on their request. He heard evidence from both sides and denied the activists’ request, ruling that such a last-minute delay could endanger the health of the animals. Legally, the burden was always on the activists to present valid reasons to stop the import and they failed to do so.

We held a valid permit; we planned a move with complicated logistics and many layers of animal professionals; we coordinated it with multiple U.S. government agencies; and we did it openly at a public airport in broad daylight. Anyone who alleges otherwise is simply an anti-zoo activist and wants to promote their own agenda.

Isn’t the legality of the permit being challenged in court?

Nothing in the filing of the preliminary injunction by the activist group prohibited the rescue mission from progressing. Despite the group’s rhetoric, the plaintiff acknowledged to the court weeks ago that the zoos had every right to move the elephants at any time.

The fact is, the import permit was issued after extensive review and met all of the criteria required by law. A similar permit allowing for the import of elephants to the U.S. in 2003 was upheld after similar challenges by animal activist groups.

Rescuing these elephants is not only legal, but is ethically the right thing to do. These animals would have been killed, period. We acted quickly to provide these animals a safe haven and a secure future.

Why not wait until the entire lawsuit played out?

The zoos met all requirements for importation and received the go-ahead from the USFWS to import the elephants. That was our legal right. At no time did the government indicate that we should not exercise our rights under the permit – and indeed, the travel and importation was coordinated with the FWS and the USDA. Our first and foremost concern is the well-being of the elephants. It was in their best interest to rescue them as soon as possible because Swaziland has declared a national state of emergency due to the severe, historic drought that has killed tens of thousands of animals, as well as people. Food and water are scarce.

Lawsuits against government agencies – in this case, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – can take years to resolve. And there was no reason to believe that this lawsuit wouldn’t have failed – just like the prior activist challenge did in the same court back in 2003. These elephants simply didn’t have that time.

Did you buy these elephants?

No. We paid to relocate them, and we are contributing to Swaziland’s ongoing conservation efforts, which we were committed to doing whether this permit was granted or not.

How did you pay for the move? It was all paid for with private funding.

Is Swaziland keeping any elephants? Yes, about 20, for cultural purposes. The elephant represents the Queen of the country.

What’s going to prevent Swaziland from doing this again? Swazi wildlife managers have vasectomized most of the remaining males, because they have no plans to breed any more elephants.

Why not move the elephants elsewhere in Africa?

A relocation within Africa was unrealistic. It’s a complex situation. Poaching has reached critical levels in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia. At the same time, elephant populations in Botswana and Namibia are so large the only need for elephants would be for elephant-back safaris – a commercial purpose prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

So, too many elephants, or not enough? Well, it’s both. At Kruger National Park, their current elephant population is nearly 40,000 animals, and park officials have said their biodiversity can handle only about 7,000 or fewer. In other areas, the elephant population isn’t as stable, and it’s certainly not safe from poachers. Poaching has even encroached in Kruger: at this respected park, more than 20 elephants have been slaughtered in recent months.

Other African countries also have varying regulations on imports. In South Africa, for example, standards for the management of elephants have been established and elephants from outside the country are not typically allowed.

Why not move them to a “sanctuary”?

In the United States, there is no safer place for these animals to live than at our progressive habitat. The romantic story of “sanctuaries” often fails to address funding issues at them. Raising money is always a concern, as is the lack of round-the-clock medical care by veterinarians experienced in caring for elephants. But most importantly, our habitat provides an excellent home for these animals, with room to walk long distances, mud wallows, sand piles for resting, and more.

Why didn’t you spend this money to help elephants in Africa instead?

Even as a non-profit zoo ourselves, we donate money to conservation efforts around the world. For example, we support both 96Elephants and the Tarangire Elephant Project in Tanzania. Part of your admission costs go directly to our partners, and special events raise more money that we send right to them. Naming contests for our two giraffe births last year brought nearly $100,000, and every dime was sent straight to conservation groups.

Another example: poaching is a significant problem we are working to eradicate. Increasingly sophisticated poachers kill an average of nearly 100 elephants in Africa every day for their ivory. The population has declined by 60 percent in the past decade alone. We serve as proud partners of several groups working to end ivory sales and stop the slaughter.

Today, there are few safe places for elephants on the continent, between expanding agriculture and vicious, rampant poaching. While progress is being made, meaningful change will take time and the elephants need a home now.

How did you decide which elephants went to each zoo? Swazi wildlife officials had monitored these animals for a long time, as did our staff starting last summer. The groupings were based on a variety of factors, including social dynamics and the personality traits of individual animals.

Why is this good for the elephants?

These elephants were facing certain death in Swaziland. Now, they’re safe and will be cared for by a team of vets, full-time nutrition staff, and elephant experts. They will live in our world-renowned elephant habitat, where they will remain within their social groupings. We know no other place in the world could provide this kind of safety.

So these zoos are good places for them?

Yes. We and the other two accredited zoos that offered homes to these animals have taken an innovative new approach to professional human care of elephants. The elephants live in expansive new herd habitats unlike any seen before, letting the elephants establish multigenerational herds in stimulating environments that meet their complex physical, mental and social needs.

These new habitats give each elephant a rich, complex life that includes making choices about how to spend their days; constant physical activity through foraging and play; ongoing mental stimulation to exercise their intelligence; and a social herd setting.

How is that different from the zoos of old?

When today’s adults were kids, there hadn’t been a lot of research about what is best for elephants in human care. That’s changed. These new habitats were developed using the latest science about elephant welfare, including a landmark 2013 study that assessed the health of all elephants at U.S. accredited zoos and identified opportunities to improve their welfare.

For example, here at the Dallas Zoo, we’re the first mixed-species habitat in the U.S. to combine African elephants with zebras, giraffes, kudu, ostriches and guinea fowl, just as they would in Africa. And the Giants of the Savanna habitat was designed with assistance from Dr. Charles Foley of the Tarangire Elephant Project. It includes migration routes that allow our elephants to walk as far as they’d like. In fact, one of our girls has been measured going 17 miles in a day.

Originally, you asked to move 15. Why did you update the permit request to 18?

Last summer, we observed that three of the younger elephants chosen to be culled were bonded with their mothers, and we didn’t want to separate them. We want to keep elephants in as large of social groups as possible, and these elephants should mesh well with our older matriarch elephants, too.

What happened to the 18th elephant?

We were notified by wildlife managers in Swaziland of the death of one of the elephants. The death resulted from an acute gastrointestinal medical condition, which was impossible to treat in the field. This gave greater urgency to our desire to act promptly on behalf of the remaining elephants, by rescuing them quickly so they could receive the 24/7 veterinary care the zoos can provide.

Why didn’t you share information about the fate of the 18th elephant until now?

We notified the permitting authorities as soon as the animal died in December. There was no need to release it publicly, because we weren’t releasing any details of the transfer for the safety of the animals and our staff, and our permit had not yet been granted. While we asked for a permit to allow 18 to be moved, we wouldn’t know until the transfer date exactly how many would come. That’s because every animal had be medically evaluated just prior to the rescue mission to ensure they were healthy and fit for travel. It was always possible that we would move fewer than 18. We have been very transparent about this process with every agency with which we were working.

Is there any concern for the health of the other elephants?

The rescued elephants’ health is stable. However, they are still resting from their relocation, and the drought conditions put stress on all wildlife in Swaziland. During the move and now, the elephants are in constant care of veterinarians.

Can the elephants put people or other elephants at risk for TB or other communicable diseases?

No, all of the animals that were rescued were tested and cleared before the move.

Why do zoos need elephants?

In the past 20 years, elephant populations in the wild have decreased dramatically. Zoo are not only ensuring that elephants have a safe, protected future, but are guarding against extinction of the largest land mammals on earth. Our elephant keepers speak to more than 1 million guests each year about conservation efforts and why we must all work together to reverse the trends of extinction and habitat loss. Sustainable elephant populations in zoos are critical to those educational efforts.

How exactly does this help rhinos?

The strategic wildlife management plan created by Swaziland conservation officials aims to restore balance to their land and shift the conservation focus to endangered populations of rhinos:

  • The black rhino is critically endangered. Once the most abundant of all rhino species, 10 years ago fewer than 2,500 remained. One subspecies became extinct three years ago.
  • White rhino are doing only slightly better. After nearly being eliminated 100 years ago, the population has rebounded somewhat, but remains threatened.

Both species are under threat. Poachers kill rhinos for their horns, and demand is strong. Luckily, rhinos do not damage the land, and large numbers could thrive in Swaziland’s protected parks.

Wildlife experts believe the habitats currently decimated by the impact of three dozen elephants have the potential to support hundreds of black and white rhinos, creating a significant opportunity to help that far more critically endangered species.

To help accomplish this goal, the three zoos will support Swaziland rhino conservation efforts for years to come, providing technical and financial support.

Protecting large numbers of rhinos while saving the lives of these elephants is a win-win scenario.

Activists suggest research on zoo elephants shows physical and psychological suffering caused by captivity. What is your response to those claims?

Those claims are unsubstantiated by science. Much of the information being cited is old, and doesn’t take into account the current methods of human care of elephants. In fact, there has been only one major, comprehensive study analyzing the welfare of elephants living in U.S. zoos. Initial results from that study released in 2013 suggest positive conclusions about the well-being of elephants living in modern AZA-accredited institutions.

That three-year study analyzed 255 elephants living in 70 zoos. Modern, accredited zoos provide optimal husbandry and care, social environments, and habitats for wildlife. Modern scientific techniques are being used to assess animal welfare. These studies inform zoo animal management decisions, and validate the exceptional care being provided to animals by modern zoos. All three zoos accepting these elephants have expansive habitats that can provide just this kind of forward-thinking care to these animals.

How are you going to manage nine elephants in the Giants of the Savanna? We have expanded one of our large quarantine spaces and converted it to an elephant barn. The habitat’s “flex” design has always allowed us to rotate elephants into different spaces as needed, including alongside giraffes, zebras, and kudu.

How are the elephants that were imported in 2003 doing?

They’re thriving. Eight females and two of the three males have produced offspring, resulting in 14 births and increased genetic diversity in the North American population. AZA, the national accrediting body for zoos, recognized the program with its top conservation awards for its success.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “Q&A: Dallas Zoo rescues Swaziland elephants

  1. April Neff

    Will the Dallas Zoo be pursuing a breeding program for the elephants now that you have a male in the mix?

    • Dallas Zoo

      We expect that to occur, given that our habitat is so elephant-friendly. We believe they will do, well, what all animals do! 🙂

  2. Jennifer

    How old is the youngest elephant??

  3. Lee Dryja

    Well done Dallas… so happy to have these wonderful creatures safe here in Texas. I have had the privilege of seeing them in the wild in Africa…so wonderful …

  4. Scott

    How old do you estimate your male elephant to be? From the picture uploaded on facebook earlier, he is a good looking fellow!

    • Dallas Zoo

      Thanks, Scott. We think he’s pretty handsome, too! His age is estimated at between 10-15 years.

  5. Jennifer

    Due to the increase in the number of elephants are there any plans fo expansion for the Giants of Savannah space at the Zoo? It seems that with the numbers of other animals, giraffes and zebras, it would provide additional homelike African territory.

    • Dallas Zoo

      It was always designed as a flexible habitat, and we can configure it in many different ways. That’s how we are able to do our mixed-species exhibit that you mention, where the elephants mingle alongside the other African animals. We did expand with a second indoor quarters, which is up and running.

  6. Devyn

    Once the 30 day quarantine is up how will you introduce them into the current herd of elephants?

    Thanks for the Q&A post, it was very informative and I definitely think you, the other zoos and all the different agencies and officials did the right thing by getting them out safely while you could. I hope these elephants live long, happy and prosperous lives at Dallas Zoo and the other ones. No animal should starve to death when there are good places and good people willing and able to give them the care they need, to allow them to die there would be cruel. Much love to everyone that worked on this.

    • Dallas Zoo

      Thank you for your support, Devyn. As for your question, we’ll introduce them very slowly. They will have time to get to know each other while separated by barriers before they get to be together. We utilize only free choice in our program, so they will decide whether or not they want to become social buddies.

  7. Brock M

    Awesome q/a. Very informative. I hope more people take the time to read this!

  8. Margaret

    Do you expect any problems between the current herd and the newcomers? How will you be introducing and merging the two groups?

    • Dallas Zoo

      Hi, Margaret. Our elephant experts will introduce them very carefully. They will have time to get to know each other while separated by barriers, then they’ll slowly be acclimated to each other. Our current four girls definitely hear and smell the newcomers now, and have been very calm about it. We utilize only free choice in our program, so they will decide whether or not they want to become social buddies.

      • Margaret

        That’s wonderful! I’m so glad the Dallas Zoo was able to accommodate these guys and I hope that everything goes well.

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