POLL: Should US zoos be allowed to import wild elephants from Africa?

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Under intense criticism from animal welfare groups and others—and now facing a lawsuit—the (FWS) recently approved a permit allowing three U.S. zoos to import 18 wild elephants from Swaziland.

The elephants—3 males and 15 females ranging from 6 to 25 years old­—will go to the Dallas Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo, in Wichita, Kansas, and Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. They’ll be put on exhibit and used for breeding purposes.

On February 9 the Connecticut-based animal advocacy group Friends of Animals went further, filing a lawsuit against FWS in federal court. The suit reads: “[N]ot only was FWS’s decision a devastating blow for these 18 elephants—who now face the possibility of being ripped away from their existing lives in the wild, years of confinement and misery, and mostly likely much shorter lifespans—it was also illegal.” (The organization says it will file a preliminary injunction on February 26 to stop the import.)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved permits for three U.S. zoos to import 18 ’s from Swaziland’s Hlane Royal National Park, shown here. Photograph by Edwin Remsberg, Corbis

In 2003 the US-based advocacy group Born Free similarly filed a suit to stop the import of 11 elephants from Swaziland into U.S. zoos. That suit failed.

Tim Van Norman, as head of the permits branch at FWS, oversaw the decision to approve the new import. By phone and email he spoke to National Geographic about what considerations were accounted for, whether zoos’ spotty track record of caring for elephants was part of the evaluation, and whether the permit approval was essentially a fait accompli long before it became official.

According to the Federal Register, some 8,000 comments were submitted during the public comment period about this application. How many of those were for or against this import?

Based on our count, there were 7,883 comments. More got put on after the close [November 23, 2015]. 1,094 were supportive. 6,718 were generally opposed.So we’re looking at 85% that were generally opposed.

How much are these opinions considered?

We considered any substantive comments. Comments saying I’m opposed to import without giving concrete reasons why don’t have a lot of weight. Just as those who say they would allow it without a reason why. We considered all the substantive comments.

Tell us what criteria had to be met for the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve the import.

African elephants coming out of Swaziland would be listed as Appendix 1under CITESand “threatened” under the . So as such, imports have to meet both CITES and ESA.[CITES—the Convention on International Trade in of Wild Fauna and Flora—regulates global . Species are listed in appendices according to their conservation status, with those on Appendix I needing the highest level of protection.]

Under CITES, a finding had to be made by my office that the import wasn’t primarily for commercial purposes. Also the Scientific Authority [the U.S. CITES authority] had to make a finding that the import would not be for purposes that are detrimental to the species.In addition, the authority would look at whether they would be suitably housed [at the zoos], and if they had the expertise and the housing to maintain the animals.(For more information behind the decision read the Q & A by FWS)

When you say detrimental, you mean the CITES non-detriment finding, which is for a species and not an individual, correct?

Generally, it refers to species as a whole—not the individual animals.

CITES states that the animals shouldn’t be imported for “commercial purposes.” How is this import not considered as for commercial purposes if the elephants are going to zoos?

[The zoos] might have a gate charge for people to come in, but they’re not importing the animals to make a profit. These three zoos are not-for-profit. Every gate fee is going back into the zoo or the efforts they’re conducting. Contrast that to, say, a commercial dealer wanting to bring in an elephant to breed and sell animals.CITES recognizes that there may be some commerciality, but the overall purpose isn’t primarily commercial.

But according to CITES, breeding itself is considered a commercial purpose, isn’t it?

No. Because [the zoos] are not establishing a commercial breeding operation. They’re importing them—the breeding that would occur would be in association with efforts the Association of Zoos and Aquarium would be conducting. So they’re trying to maintain a genetically viable population in the U.S.

It isn’t unusual to sell animals between zoos, but those sales are not to make a profit per se. They may cover some of the costs.But taking this information as a whole, we determined this was not for primarily commercial purposes.

So we looked at the environmental impact of authorizing the import, or denying it, or the alternative, which was bringingsome portion of the animals. The issue of what impact it was having on the elephants in Swaziland was somewhat out of our control. We looked at whether it was humane—if the transport was humane. But the ethics of having elephants in captivity was out of the scope of our authorization.

Why is that out of your scope?

In the findings we have to make, there isn’t anything that says: How ethical is this?

We want to make sure the animals are humanely treated, but we’ve not been mandated by Congress to consider the ethics of this. We’re looking at whether [the import] is having a negative impact or is detrimental to the species. Are they suitably housed? Are the facilities going to maintain them in a healthy environment? And we rely on the USDA and Animal Welfare Act [AWA] to look at that.

The AWA and USDA have both been criticized for inadequate welfare requirements or oversight of captive animals. Last month a 37-year-old female elephant named Chai was found dead at Oklahoma City Zoo. Malee, a four-year-old, also died there recently. In 2007 Chai’s offspring, Hansa, age six, died at Woodland Park Zoo, in Seattle. And Watoto died there in 2014, reportedly because she couldn’t stand up. With these kinds of statistics, why would FWS approve more elephant imports?

We’re looking at the USDA—and the implementation of the AWA, which deals with care of captive animals—what was their view of the import?Are these zoos permitted under the AWA to maintain these elephants?Certainly APHIS [USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] regularly inspects zoos and determines they are meeting their criteria. So we do rely heavily on their views of this as well. We look at the facilities the institutions have: Do they have staff trained to deal with elephants?

Without a doubt there have been problems at zoos. I can’t tell you, I don’t know all of the details of the deaths that have occurred. That is something USDA/APHIS has addressed.We have to look at the information provided to us and make the decision.

It sounds like what you are saying is that the Fish and Wildlife Service has to follow certain regulations. Do you feel constrained or think this process should be reformed?

We have to abide by the laws given to us. We don’t have the ability to say, “I don’t personally like that so I can’t issue a permit.” That’s an arbitrary decision that won’t stand up in court. Are there gaps? Certainly. Probably there are gaps in every law. There are things, if I had my druthers, we’d do differently. But we produce regulations and put those out for the public to comment. So it’s a very open process. But I don’t particularly feel constrained. This is what’s required.

Mark Reed, director of the Sedgwick County Zoo, said on the morning the permit was approved, “We would never even have done this if we didn’t think we could get the permit.” During a September 2015 press conference, Dennis Pate, director of the Henry Doorly Zoo, said he’d traveled to Swaziland last July, when the 18 elephants were captured. Was this a done deal long ago?

It was not a done deal. We received the application in November 2014. There certainly was discussion prior to that about the permitting process for importing elephants from Swaziland. But until we made our final decision, nothing was final. As far as the service was concerned, it wasn’t a done deal.

Do you have any comment on what Reed said?

I have no comment on what Reed said.

When are the elephants arriving?

I don’t know. I haven’t heard a date. The permits are valid for a year.

Do the zoos have to alert you when the elephants are coming?

They have to communicate to the Office of Law Enforcement, but we don’t have a requirement to have them contact us.

Do you have applications pending for the import of more elephants?

No, as far as pending applications for more elephants, we don’t have any.

This article was first published by National Geographic on 18 Feb 2016.

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James Jamie Clement

And further more For those that are worried about a profit being realized by an entity keeping an elephant alive I have to say this. A profit made from a live elephant is always better than a profit made off a dead one.

James Jamie Clement

African elephants are being killed over in their wild lands faster than they are reproducing. Over 60% gone in last decade. They are being wiped out at the rate of 100 plus each day. At the current rate of killing they will be gone from their native lands in less than 30 years. Any live elephants moved off the continent of Africa to safe havens abroad increase the chance of these marvelous animals being saved as a species for future generations and reintroduction to native lands once things change there. The more diverse blood lines and DNS that are saved… Read more »

Barbara Levy Steever

Animal rights activists do not comprehend that being "free" means leading a risky life. Wild animals travel long distances looking for food and water.They aren't traveling because they enjoy the walk. Zoos are essential to maintaining the genetic diversity of endangered and at risk species. Leaving the survival of a species up to chance and the good will of poor nations who have other priorities is poor management. ARAs need to shut up, because the road to Hell is paved with their good intentions.

Tracy Donovan

lots of elephant experts here. They know all about them from the propaganda they.ve seen from PETA and the other groups.

Bill Hoffman

If we don't they will eventually become poached out of existance!

Linda Mandala

Leave African elephants in Africa wild and free as they belong. I will NEVER go to a zoo to see wild animals in captivity nor will ANY of my family. This is a cruel and completely inhumane practise and must be stopped. We humans just think we can do whatever we like to any other being just for our own entertainment. WRONG!!!! NO species has the right to do this to another…all of us belong to this earth equally and Elephants belong in Aftica…not in captivity in some stupid zoo.

Rodrick Barongi

The wild is shrinking and so many species are dying from habitat loss and illegal poaching. The Swaziland elephants will die if not removed from a severely degraded habitat. Moving them to another overcrowded reserve is not fair to these elephants. They will have a better quality of life in good zoo exhibits. Just look how well the last group is doing at the San Diego Zoo and Tampa. The wild is not what it used to be and if the choice is rescuing them in a good quality zoo like Dallas, Omaha and Wichita then this is far better… Read more »

Crystal Eng

All animals in zoos and circuses are representatives of a population of animals that are threatened and endangered, figuratively and literally. Without really getting to know them and see them how many people will ever connect with them. When all the elephants in the wild are gone….some say within the next 20-50 years…how will we ever remember and love them? How many of us miss the dodo bird? Without truly connecting and knowing we won't be moved to help them as the disappear in the wild….one every fifteen minutes. How many of you out there sitting behind a screen are… Read more »

Karin Schwartz

For those of you who think that elephants in zoos are restrained in chains in small enclosures, wake up to the 21st century of modern accredited zoological gardens! Faced with being culled, there is no better option than to be transported to a zoological garden where they will receive the best in health care and management offering them a life where they will not be poached for their tusks, do not have predators killing their young, and will be maintained within their natural family groups as they would in the wild. Zoos do not breed to make a commercial profit.… Read more »

Cathy Attu

These animals will die if not brought to North America. I think some people have visons of baby elephants taken from their mothers and this is not the case. While people are working very hard at saving them from extinction from poachers and habitat encroachment – rangers are dying trying to do this – people are wasting a lot of money and effort trying to "save" elephants which do not need saving because they are behind the times and think Africa is a save place for them. In actuality the uninformed ones are enabling the poachers and allowing the "wild"… Read more »

Ellen Attridge

Life in the wild isn't nearly as rosy as you'd like to think.

Jeanine Hathaway

A zoo is an educational institution, a place where humans learn about themselves and other animals, especially those endangered by human activity in their natural habitats. In a zoo, we learn to love the creatures we know and protect their species elsewhere.

Amos Morris

I believe individuals who are voting to not allow the import think these animals are roaming free on an unobstructed land. I'm not going to go over the biology of elephants but state the facts of this particular circumstance. The tribe who manage the elephants in this country of Africa are ready to cull (KILL) these animals to make room for a rhino managed herd. The elephants are over eating the resources of the property from where they are staying. Once again, these animals will be culled. If allowed to import, these elephants will have a healthy diet and will… Read more »

Ewa Narkiewicz

Annie Wood so you would rather they all be culled or starve.
Thanks for letting us know what truly compassionate is

Elaine Miller Summerhill

With so many being killed by poachers in the wild, the salvation of the species may necessitate elephants being kept and bred in captivity in zoos and bioparks.

Al Smith

i guess its better to let them die there by the hands of poachares or disease, than allow some here for reproduction/zoos

Annie Wood

Cold hearted, misinformed and pompous with it. I suggest before doing more blathering you do some real research on the subject of the suffering of animals in zoos by well respected experts. Though from the sound of you I suspect the killing of animals might be a hobby or a so called sport.

Annie Wood

Sorry John but you just don't get it…. To the truly compassionate all life is precious

Gianna Maio

Cat Vincent These groups are actually not randomly chosen. Left alone, this particular group will most likely be culled or placed in an African sub-par zoo. Also, they are not being sold to the USA. No exchange of money is involved here, it is nonprofit, purely in the interest of the elephants. As with no prospect of ever returning, that much is likely, however its not as cruel as you seem to imagine. It's not like selling slaves of to foreign countries,its relocating threatened animals. Most large animals that were born wild but grew used to good human caretakers and… Read more »

Cat Vincent

Would YOU be happy to have a randomly chosen group of family members sold to a foreign country with no propect of ever returning??

Anne Hageman-Kieselhorst

There is no valid argument that is sane and can prove any wild animal has to be caught or bred for captivity.

Gianna Maio

Everyone seems to be misunderstanding the point of flying these elephants in to the US. The Swaziland habitat is suffering from drought and those elephants are endangered. The point is to breed them so that they can be reintroduced to their native habitat in more steady numbers, so as to ultimately protect the Swaziland population. Without this, those elephants are in trouble. Also, zoo elephants are not miserable. The animals in AZA accredited zoos are very, very well cared for and will likely live longer lives than in the wild, not shorter. There is no real evidence of them being… Read more »

John Dineley

I find it tragically amusing that somebody would even consider making an analogy with kidnapping and slavery when talking about the relocation of a number of elephants to zoological collection the United States.

John Dineley

I see that the animal-rights cultists are out in force with their various comments based mainly on misinformation and ignorance and a romantic and anthropomorphic view of the animal world – animal-rights organisations have done an excellent job in brainwashing gullible people. The fact is that if these animals were not going to zoological collections they would likely being killed in a cull. Most people know very little about the fate of wildlife in Africa and its various countries where protection and conservation of wildlife varies dramatically from country to country. Swaziland has a surplus of elephants which effectively means… Read more »

Elizabeth Spenzer

This is a death sentence for these elephants all in the name of entertainment. What is wrong with the FWS – this agency is obvioulsy influenced by big money and is doing what is in the interest of special interest groups regardless of the impact upon the elephants.FWS needs to go – they are corrupt and spineless and a detriment to the well being of all wildlife.

Karen Osborn-Roberts

Enough with causing this terrible trauma by breaking up ele family's, just so zoos can inhumanly enclose creatures who normally travel many miles a day.

Nancy Kearney

It is inhumane and barbaric to take an elephant from it natural habitat to place in a zoo. The AWA and the APHIS are clearly derelect in there duties to protect these animals. How can we justify sentencing any more elephants, to what is for them, a life of pain and suffering. No caring decent person would condone this, so obviously someone is getting paid.

Daphne Williams

Absofuckinglutely not.

Ellen L Hoover-Forson

Elephants are meant to roam free. They suffer mentally and physically at the hands of humans, No matter how large the zoo is, It is crimanal to lock up and elephant. They are beautiful and very smart creatures. There should be a law that forbids them being sold.

Anne Naglo

That´s a life in slavery. Thought we had abolished that……

Alisyn Peters

Zoos exist to make money from the captivity and exploitation of the animals in their possession. Zoos are a form of "entertainment" for the masses and do not equal conservation. Conservation is preserving the natural habitat of these animals and co-existing with them without trying to control or profit from them at their expense and exploitation. When a baby elephant is taken from the wild, the mother and rest of the herd will do everything they can to prevent the abduction, often resulting in the mother being gravely injured if not killed – it is a bloody battle! The baby… Read more »

Tami Turner Ninke

Hell NO

Hulia Dafazio

Absolutely not.

Lynn de Wit

Absolutely NOT! These animal never do well in captivity anywhere let alone transporting them thousands of miles to the U.S, We dont need wild african elephants in zoos. The money to transport them must be huge amount, put this back in Africa and help them on the ground in their HOMELAND instead of cashing in on them in some artificial concrete junge where it will be guaranteed they will not survive. The exporting of animals around the world has to stop now who are we to decide where they live, wild animals are exactly that WILD and are not owned… Read more »

Ann Kitchin

No no no this cruelty must stop!

Dana Poirier

Absolutely not. Elephants belong in their natural environment. Common sense alone should be enough to foolish people.

Dona Beauvais Gagne

No. Just no.

Margie Jo Boyce-Rhone

If they're going to be killed to thin a herd then yes as long as the zoos have enough room for them and not cramped. Other than that they should be kept in Africa where their home is.

Steve Clark

Elephants should be left alone they was born free and always should be free

Käthe Walton

Elephants have very strong family ties. Taking babies away from their Mothers is horrifically cruel!

Gabrielle Logan

Succinclty NOOOOOOOO. Absolutely NO NO NO. End of discussion.

Kelley Smith-Hull

There is no need to import elephants to the USA

Winnie Lisowski

These elephants should remain where they belong as they need their Mothers & Freedom. A life in a zoo is a life of misery, elephants like roaming around, splashing in water & rolling in mud & most of all socialing with other elephants. In a zoo all these things are taken from them therefore they are very unhappy so moving them to US is definately NOT a good idea.

Chelsea E. Ialeggio

there is absolutely no argument that justifies taking these majestic creatures out of nature and away from their families. enough. we are destroying our planet. let them be.

Carol Davies Wigley

Apparently the US Fish and Wildlife have to be TOLD by us WHY they should NOT import WILD elephants that BELONG in the CONTINENT of AFRICA, to one of 3 ZOOS with TINY, FAKE, man-made enclosures. Also being in WRONG climate zones. Not to mention the danger of being transported the long treacherous journey overseas. They will be subjected to massive physical, and emotional stressors. There are new diseases they have never been exposed to in the USA. Their family groups will be torn apart causing much grief and mourning which is a significant thing for the elephants well-being. North… Read more »

Sue Kohn

Plain and simple- leave them in thei natural habitat.

Sue Kohn

Plain and simple- leave them in thei natural habitat.

Michele Rae

Any investigation will reveal elephants are extremely intelligent and very emotional beings. Doing this to them is no different than barging into a large human family reunion and removing your pick of family members because you want baristas for your cafe.

Jeanne Barrett

I appreciate that the journalist asked harder questions than those typically posed regarding captive elephants. The lack of adequate requirements for care for captive elephants, as well as the non-consideration for the ethics of importing wild elephants from the conditions in which they are meant to live, adds up to an ill considered and inhumane plan. Elephants live miserable lives and die far younger than their natural life expectancy in zoos. If zoos spent the budget for confining elephants on conserving and protecting elephants in their native lands, zoos could indeed make an honest claim to conservation. The question is… Read more »

Deb Wildrick

At the rate of killing the elephants off for their ivory making them almost extinct, as the Rhino has been declared, I suggest bring them over to a Sanctuary situation. Zoo's are not the right destination for them. They need protection, not exploitation or mass murder for human greed.