Swaziland's Elephants: A Dying Breed

What's an African elephant worth? If you're the Kingdom of Swaziland, the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo, or Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, it looks like about $90,000 per year for five years for 15 (or is it 18?) elephants.

For the second time in just about a decade, Swaziland has decided that the thousands and thousands of acres of protected areas for wildlife are simply not big enough for elephants and rhinos to co-exist. So, the manager of Swaziland's parks has decided that the only solution is to round up around half of the small country's young elephants--six years old? 15 years old?--and send them to American zoos.

For the life of me, I can't understand how two wrongs make a right. For the life of me, I can't understand how Swaziland and American zoos are allowed to repeat history's mistakes without learning from them. For the life of me, I can't understand how anyone thinks a wild, young African elephant belongs in captivity in America, left to languish throughout his or her shortened life in unnatural conditions on unnatural flooring, being gawked at by unwitting visitors.

What I do understand is that the U.S. zoo industry has failed to find a way to forcibly keep elephants in captivity. Elephants don't breed well in captivity; calves who are successfully birthed die as infants at triple the normal rate; and the lifespan of any survivor is dramatically shortened. What I do understand is that, because of this pathetic record of captive breeding, and in order to display their large money-making attractions, American zoos have to either shuttle these poor giants from location to location--including zoos in cold weather climates--or steal them from the wild.

But, what I also know is that, for as much as elephants in American zoos are poorly managed, so, too, are the wild elephants in Swaziland. Already, 11 elephants were shipped from Swaziland to two zoos in America in 2003 because of this same alleged competition with rhinos for "limited habitat." Despite removing roughly one-third of Swaziland's elephant population at that time, mismanagement has allowed the problem to recur. Now, fully half of Swaziland's elephant population is being proposed for export to three American zoos.

What do we think will happen in a decade, then? We may see more breeding in Swaziland, with elephants repopulating to 36, 37, or 38... And, next time, what's stopping Swaziland from exporting all of them? I fear that Swaziland's parks may become nothing more than breeding facilities for American zoos.

I think what's most exasperating is the short-sightedness of it all. In 2015, this cannot be the best we can do--particularly where conservation is concerned. Are we really that myopic to think that the only way to manage a small elephant population of three dozen or so is by either killing them or keeping them in captivity? We need robust discussions among conservation scientists and other experts about how to manage Swaziland's elephants and rhinos together. We need discussions about how to manage the protected parks in Swaziland, considering factors like boundaries for the protected areas to keep the elephants there but with more space to roam. We need to engage in examination and continent-wide investigation to assess translocation opportunities to keep these wild elephants in the wild (including, perhaps, to an area where wild elephants could bring tourists, with the ecotourism revenue going to local African communities and back into African wildlife conservation).

These elephants deserve every chance to be free--not to cling to an unnatural existence in cruel captivity, literally thousands of miles from home, where their biological, physical, social, and environmental needs cannot be met. And, to be clear, American zoos have no right to display elephants, and we have no right to see elephants up close in facilities where the animals don't belong in the first place.

Yesterday, Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation submitted comments before the deadline closed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, urging alternatives for these elephants and for the import permits requested by these zoos to be rejected. Thousands of compassionate citizens did the same.

Elephant experts, conservationists, animal advocates, and thoughtful people everywhere know that wildlife belongs in the wild and that we have a responsibility to do everything we can to keep them there. The only thing worse than importing half of Swaziland's wild elephant population into American zoos is to blithely accept that there is no alternative to doing so. Where young, wild elephants are concerned--elephants who, in the wild, could live another 60 years--we must fight for them to remain free.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,