U.S. zoos work to relocate elephants, making room for rhinos in Africa Zoos and Swaziland wildlife trust form conservation partnership, commit to care for animals from wildlife parks that need a new home

September 25, 2015 – Three U.S. zoos are collaborating with conservation officials in Swaziland, Africa, in an effort to provide 18 African elephants necessary new homes. The animals were removed from two privately managed government parks to prevent further degradation of the landscape and in order to make room for critically endangered rhinos. If the elephants are not relocated they will be culled.

Working as partners, Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo have applied for permits that are required to allow the import. These permit requests are currently under consideration by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Swaziland wildlife authorities. If permits are approved, the elephants can be relocated to innovative, new habitats in the United States. All three zoos are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and have developed expansive exhibits designed to meet the needs of large, social elephant herds.

Under the care of the nonprofit Big Game Parks Trust in Swaziland, the 18 elephants must be exported or culled in order for Swaziland to meet its conservation plan goals to avoid overpopulation of elephants and to make room for rhinos in its parks. Currently the elephants are living in holding areas, called bomas, spanning several acres. Relocating the elephants elsewhere in the region is unrealistic due to issues related to excessive poaching, loss of habitat and elephant-human conflicts. Drought conditions and degraded park land require Swaziland to truck in hay from South Africa to feed the 18 elephants daily. Swaziland is currently experiencing its worst drought ever, and the conditions are threatening wildlife as well as livestock.

Swaziland, a small landlocked country in southern Africa roughly the size of New Jersey, has no other space for the elephants that were damaging the parks by changing forests into barren landscapes. Destroying ancient trees and brush as they eat their way across the plains, the parks’ elephants consume sparse vegetation faster than it can naturally regenerate. This altered the land and threw resources out of balance, which negatively affected other mammal and bird species in the parks.

Since establishing its first wildlife sanctuary in 1964, Swaziland has been guided by longstanding wildlife management plans created by local conservationists and park officials who aim to restore the parks to a balanced, sustainable state. Although Swaziland’s parks are too small to support large elephant herds, plans identify the parks as ideal settings for a significant rhino conservation effort. (See www.roomforrhinos.org for more information.) While about 15 elephants will remain at the parks as symbols of Swaziland’s rich natural heritage, the current elephant population is too large, leaving 18 elephants in need of a new home and a safe future, a role the three accredited zoos can provide.

“Accredited zoos strongly support the conservation and protection of elephants globally. We’re hopeful this project will progress because we care about the survival of animal species and about the welfare of individual animals. Our three zoos are committed to providing these elephants with a safe future,” said Dennis Pate, president/CEO of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. “Swaziland is poised to play a major role in rhino conservation efforts, and we can support that while establishing new, multi-generational elephant herds in the United States. Using space at zoos for animal species that need help is one more way that modern zoos help save animals from extinction. This is win-win for both species.”

The zoos plan to provide ongoing support for Swaziland’s rhino conservation program, which could significantly contribute to the survival of rhinos in Africa. Once the most abundant of all rhino species, black rhinos are critically endangered and considered at great risk of extinction due to poaching for their horns. Black rhinos, and southern white rhinos, can live side by side because they do not compete for food—one browses and the other grazes. Both species need protected habitats and both are expected to thrive in the Swazi parks because they do not outstrip the land. The parks’ protected boundaries can also provide critical safety and space to support large numbers. Since its inception, Big Game Parks, the Swazi kingdom’s authority on conservation, has successfully reintroduced more than 22 animal species into Swaziland’s government parks system and also operates a highly effective anti-poaching unit.

“Some people would rather see these elephants die than live in an accredited zoo. We strongly disagree,” said Gregg Hudson, president/CEO of the Dallas Zoo. “As animal caretakers and conservationists, we care about animal populations as a whole just as much as an individual animal. We can provide these elephants a safe future while making an enormous impact on rhino conservation in Africa.” Hudson added, “Thanks to generous support from our communities, each of the three partner zoos has built a spacious, modern habitat to accommodate the needs of elephant families.”

A safe, healthy future for elephants

If permits are approved, the 18 elephants will be relocated to live in expansive habitats designed to meet the needs of large social herds. Each zoo will accept six elephants. All have exhibits that provide elephants with choices that help ensure their physical, mental and social wellbeing. The innovative approach is informed by the latest scientific research about elephant welfare including a landmark 2013 study that assessed the health of elephants at all U.S. accredited zoos and identified opportunities to improve welfare for all elephants in professional care. Insights from these studies are informing how accredited zoos care for elephants. For example:

  • The first habitat in the U.S. to combine African elephants with zebras, giraffes, impalas, ostriches and guinea fowl together, just as they would in Africa, at Dallas Zoo.
  • The largest herd room in North America where elephants can gather together, whenever they choose to socialize, at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
  • More than five acres designed to keep elephants foraging and active throughout the day, including the world’s largest pool for elephants at 550,000 gallons, at Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo.

“We commend Swaziland for pursuing a solution to export rather than cull these elephants. Conservationists there are working hard to address the parks’ ecological destruction, which is causing problems for other species,” said Mark Reed, executive director of Sedgwick County Zoo. “Our goal is to provide the elephants with everything they need to enjoy their day. We can provide them with a rich, complex life that includes choices about how to spend their day, physical activity through foraging and play, mental stimulation and a social herd setting under the care of elephant experts.”

Each partner zoo will care for a social group of elephants with professional veterinary and keeper staff experienced in elephant care and management techniques, including positive reinforcement based on reward and cooperation with elephant keepers and restricted contact.

The import applications are for 15 female and 3 male elephants, which could arrive in the U.S. later this year if the necessary permits are approved. This proposed import not only helps Swaziland protect its wildlife habitats and provides an alternative to culling animals; it could significantly contribute to ongoing efforts to establish a sustainable elephant population in North America. While these elephants were all born in the wild in Swaziland and their exact ages are unknown, it is confirmed that 15 are sub-adults that are weaned and are estimated to range in age from 6-15 years old. Three others are young, adult females with estimated age ranges from 20-25 years old. The zoos are deeply committed to maintaining these elephants in social herds.

Elephants have successfully transitioned from Swaziland parks to U.S. AZA-accredited zoos in the past. In 2003, 11 elephants arrived from Swaziland and joined African elephants already at two U.S. AZA-accredited zoos as part of an earlier effort to manage the elephant population. Today the elephants are thriving. Each female has successfully delivered at least one calf, and all but one bull has sired, resulting in 14 births.

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About the Dallas Zoo: The Dallas Zoo, an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is operated by private, not-for-profit Dallas Zoo Management Inc. It is the largest zoological experience in Texas, featuring a 106-acre park and thousands of animals.

The zoo is committed to conservation and education, providing hundreds of educational experiences each year and partnering with groups worldwide to protect species. Its award-winning Giants of the Savanna is designed with elephant migration routes and is the only U.S. habitat where elephants mingle alongside giraffes, zebras and other African species. The zoo supports many international conservation projects for elephants, giraffe, cheetah, gorillas, horned lizards and more.

About Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, operated by the independent not-for-profit Omaha Zoological Society and accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), covers 112 developed acres and is located at Nebraska’s I-80 Exit 454. Its Bill and Berniece Grewcock Center for Conservation and Research focuses on six study areas to benefit animal husbandry and species conservation: education and technology transfer, conservation medicine, molecular genetics, reproductive physiology, horticulture and nutrition.

About Sedgwick County Zoo: The Sedgwick County Zoo, operated by the not-for-profit Sedgwick County Zoological Society, is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Sedgwick County Zoo, in Wichita, Kansas, recognized with national and international awards for its support of field conservation programs and successful breeding of rare and endangered species, covers 247 developed acres.