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art/W. Ralph Walters
They once lived in beautiful savannas and fields of umbrella-shaped trees, roaming up to 30 miles a day, swimming in watering holes, playing in mud pits, and foraging for food. But in August, 11 elephants were ripped from their home in Swaziland and carted halfway around the world. Fourtwo male and two femalewere taken to the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida; the other seven, a male and six females, to San Diego Wild Animal Park in California. Two of the captured females are pregnant.
The elephants, all between the ages of 10 and 12, were among the babies who watched as their families were slaughtered during a "cull" at Kruger National Park in South Africa in 1994. At that time, the traumatized baby elephants were taken to the 74,130-acre Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland in the hopes that they would integrate into another herd.
Yet in 2000, after the elephants had spent most of their lives in Swaziland and likely formed close bonds with a new "family," the government insisted that 11 elephants would also have to be "culled" because they were causing congestion and competing with black rhinos for spacea claim that seemed suspect given that there were only 36 elephants in all of Swaziland, a country the size of New Jersey.
Yadira Galindo, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Wild Animal Park, told the media that "the Swaziland government felt South Africa was already too crowded and that no place on the continent would have given the animals enough space."
So the elephants were sent to zoos. Pretending to be heroes, the Lowry Park Zoo and the San Diego Zoo announced that they would purchase the elephants from Swaziland for $133,000.
It seems this may have been Swaziland's plan all along.
According to the nine wild-elephant experts with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Nairobi, Kenya, who reviewed the zoos' permit applications to import the elephants to the United States, and informed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) that,
"There are now dozens of small public and private reserves in South Africa which have been 'stocked' with elephant calves from culls...Most of these reserves apparently took the maximum number of elephants that their area could hold. Many are now saying, as Swaziland is, that they have to kill or sell some of the elephants because of habitat degradation. This is not conservation of elephants in their natural habitats nor is it a situation of a natural elephant population outgrowing its park or reserve. As far as we can surmise it is more like keeping and breeding elephants with the purpose of selling them."
Clearly outraged, the Amboseli researchers added that, "These elephants are being treated like livestock to be bought, transported, bred, sold, transported again, chained, caged, 'trained' with bull hooks and hot wires, sold or traded again when they are not as appealing or they are not breeding or they are too old, and finally ending up in miserable road-side zoos or third-rate circuses."
In a separate letter to the USFWS, Keith Lindsay, a member of the Amboseli research team, who has close to 30 years experience in wildlife research, management, and conservationmuch of it in regard to African ecosystems and elephants, as well as experience working as a consultant and project manager in sustainable development in Latin America, Asia, and Africa wrote that "The Swaziland authorities are not managing their elephants in accord[ance] to the current state of ecological knowledge, or indeed with any clearly thought-out strategy."
Commenting on the permit to import the elephants, Lindsay found fault with, among other things, the zoos' claim that "the import will also serve to increase U.S. African elephant population..." Lindsay pointed out that "there is no 'population' of elephants in the U.S., just scattered individuals or very small groups kept in near solitary confinement."
He also wrote that he considers the Swazi authorities' implication that the only alternative to selling the animals to zoos is for them to be shot, "blackmail."
Larry Killmar, the deputy director of collections at the Zoological Society of San Diego, seems to have no trouble with the alleged "blackmail." He told reporters that "Swaziland found itself in the unfortunate situation in which conservation officials were forced to either kill these animals or export them." Said Killmar proudly, "we're happy to provide them with an alternative to death."
A Fate Worse Than Death
But being stuck in a zoo is no real life for an elephant. The social structure of free-roaming elephant herds is extremely complex and cannot be duplicated in captivity. Females remain with their mothers for life and males until they are 10 to 15 years old. The mothers teach the babies to cake themselves with mud to ward off sunburn and to grasp small pieces of fruit with their trunks. Males learn guidance and wisdom from older bulls.
Elephants mourn the loss of other elephants and help one another when in trouble. They work together to care for and rescue their young and talk to each other, using 50 different types of calls to communicate.
Even under the best of conditions, elephants "are actually very poor candidates for life in captivity," says David Hancocks, the former director of the Woodland Park Zoo. According to Hancocks, "Their requirements are so substantialit is probably beyond the capabilities of most zoos to even begin to resolve them."
The Swazi elephants, who naturally have more than a hundred miles to explore, will be confined in enclosures that provide them with only about a third of an acre of space for each elephanteven less if they end up shuffled off to other zoos. The experts with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project predict that "The quality of their lives will be radically different in the zoo environment and...these elephants will experience more debilitating illnesses and will live shorter lives than elephants living in the wild."
To make matters worse, both the Lowry Park Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park have a history of failing to comply with the minimum standards of care established by the federal Animal Welfare Act.
The Lowry Park Zoo has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for failure to provide animals with clean drinking water, shelter from direct sunlight and inclement weather, safe enclosures, and proper handling. The last elephant the zoo had was shipped off to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which also has a history of abuse, exploitation, and neglect.
Currently, the Lowry Park Zoo is under USDA investigation and is being sued for the deaths of several wallabies. The zoo apparently transported the animals in the back of an unventilated, hot truck typically used for moving furniture instead of using a vehicle specially designed for transporting animals.
The San Diego Zoo has been cited by the USDA for failure to provide animals with sanitary living conditions, proper feeding, sufficient veterinary care, adequate shelter, and proper ventilation. Even more disturbing, several years ago, zoo-goers witnessed the beating of an elephant named Dunda, who was tied down with ropes and beaten for two days with clubs and axe handles.
Representing PETA and other animal protection groups, animal rights lawyer Katherine Meyer, of Meyer & Glitzenstein in Washington, D.C., stated that "If the elephants are euthanized, that would be a better outcome than to have these elephants put in crates, put on an airplane, brought over here, trained with bullhooks, put in cages, and live the rest of their lives in captivity."
A Lifetime Of Servitude
Despite decades of countless elephant beatings at zoos across the country, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), which describes itself as "the leader in establishing and maintaining high standards for zoos and aquariums through [their] accreditation process," does not prohibit zoos from using corporal punishment or circus-style training, has not required that zoos abandon the cruel and barbaric use of bullhooks, and actually provides guidelines for striking elephants. The AZA also does not prohibit zoos from chaining elephants overnightevery single nightand sets outdoor space requirements at a pathetic 1,800 square feet, which is only 40-feet-by-45-feet or about the size of a 3-car garage.
The four elephants shipped to Lowry Park will be the main "attraction" in the new "Safari Africa" exhibit that is scheduled to open in the spring.
Keith Lindsay believes that zoos have "next to nothing to offer" with regard to education. He feels that "It is much better to watch films of real elephants behaving naturallywalking, feeding, playing, mating, fightingin truly natural social groups of up to hundreds of animals ranging widely across ecosystems than to see miserable captive elephants standing around in a bare enclosure, no matter how 'naturalistic' the landscaping design may be."
The San Diego zoo plans to place its seven elephants in its African elephant exhibit. The exhibit has been empty since April when the zoo sent three aging and ailing elephants, who it considered less of a draw, to the much smaller Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicagoeven though the cold winter climate is clearly unsuitable for elephantsand one to Tyler, Texas.
The 11 young, imported elephants are expected to produce crowd-pleasing babies to boost zoo revenues. Lowry Park Zoo President Lex Salisbury called the elephants "new founders for breeding."
But captive breeding has consistently been a dismal failure. According to the AZA's African Elephant Studbook, "Captive breeding efforts have been met with little success. In the entire history of African elephants in North America, only 79 calves have been born with only 50 percent surviving to a year of age."
Instead of ripping elephants from the wild and forcing them to live in captivity and churn out more elephants to live in captivity, the San Diego Zoo and Lowry Park Zoo could have rescued some of the many elephants in need, including Maggie, who suffers from loneliness and bitter cold at the Alaska Zoo; Mary, a lone elephant, who spends most of her life swaying neurotically in a trailer while being dragged around the country for circuses; or Tonya, another solitary African elephant, who has tried to escape from her miserable circus life at least four times.
Eco-tourism A Better Option
But what about the 11 Swazi elephants? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), part of the Save Wild Elephants Coalition, which also includes the Born Free Foundation, The Elephant Sanctuary, In Defense of Animals, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Animal Welfare Institute, found three African reserves that each would have allowed the elephants to stay together and afforded them more room to roam.
According to a March 19, 2003 letter from J.I. Van Der Westhuizen, a director at Destination Management Services, the management company responsible for the ongoing management of Ngome Game Reserve, "Ngome would gladly take in the 11 Swaziland elephants that Ted Reilly, in Swaziland, is currently considering sending to zoos in the U.S.A."
Ngome, located in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, is a new game reserve owned by the local community. The community used grant funding to turn land that was previously used for hunting and cattle farms into a refuge. It stopped the hunting and is pursuing eco-tourism as an alternative economic activity on the property. As Westhuizen's letter points out, "For the community this is an opportunity to prove that community-based eco-tourism development can work."
Clearly, this option would have not only been better for the elephants, it would have benefited the local people of the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands as well. As far a Debbie Leahy, the director of Captive Animals & Entertainment Issues at PETA, is concerned, shipping the frightened animals to the U.S. "had nothing to do with saving elephants, It had to do with buying threatened animals so that the zoos could profit from it."
Efforts to Keep Swazi Elephants Free
In addition to securing testimony from elephant experts and locating an alternative home for the 11 elephants, PETA and the Save Wild Elephants Coalition have been actively fighting for the elephants on all fronts.
On PETA's behalf, South African native Dave Matthews, vocalist and guitarist for the Dave Matthews Band, sent a letter to Swaziland's King Mswati III, in the spring of 2003, urging him to prohibit the capture of the 11 elephants. Wrote Matthews: "The elephants of African countries do best when left to wander at will through the bushveld, savanna, and ancient hardwood vegetation of their homeland...No zoo in the U.S., no matter how well intentioned, can duplicate this habitat."
PETA members made sure King Mswati III got the message by protesting at an event he was attending, featuring George W. Bush as a speaker, in June 2003. The activistsone dressed as a baby elephantheld signs reading, "Swazi ElephantsBorn Free, Sold Out" and "Keep Swazi Elephants Free."
The Save Wild Elephants Coalition, represented by Meyer & Glitzenstein, blocked the import, originally scheduled for May 2003, with a series of legal challenges. In April 2003, the zoos were forced to surrender their federal import permits after the coalition filed suit and informed the USFWS that the original permits had been granted on the basis of false and misleading information provided by the zoos. In July, a second lawsuit was filed when the zoos' new permit applications were granted. The coalition maintained that the permits violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Sadly, in August, a U.S. District Court judge and an appeals court denied a request for preliminary injunction to bar the import until the legal challenge could be heard.
The zoos were given the go-ahead, allowing the first importation of African elephants to U.S. zoos since the 1980s, when the species was listed as threatened. Their arrival date was kept secret in an ill-fated attempt to avoid confrontation with PETA and the other members of the coalition.
Nevertheless, the zoos didn't manage to sneak the elephants in without event. Demonstrations were held at the Tampa and San Diego zoos and at the Swaziland Embassy.
In 2002, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced that it was calling for elephants to be phased out of European zoos after a study revealed that captive elephants commonly suffer from physical and psychological abuse, dismal living conditions, poor care and early death. Recognizing that urban zoos cannot adequately provide suitable environments, the London, Bristol and Edinburgh zoos and Longleat Safari Park in Britain have closed their elephant exhibits. As evidenced by the Swaziland capture, the public can help protect these majestic animals in the wild by refusing to visit zoos with elephants.
Heather Moore is a staff writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and a regular contributor to IMPACT press.
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