Groups Fight Importing of African Elephants

Times Staff Writer

For 15 years, not a single elephant has been imported from Africa to a North American zoo. The San Diego Wild Animal Park wants to change that -- arguing that without new elephants, the popular species will disappear from U.S. zoos.

But a coalition of animal rights organizations has vowed to do everything possible to ensure that the giant animals never leave Africa.

“This isn’t about conservation,” said Adam Roberts, vice president of Born Free USA, one of several groups that have sued to block the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from allowing the elephants to be brought to San Diego and to the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla. “This is about getting visitors to the zoo.”


Behind the dispute are sharp disagreements about the fate of the African elephant and the role that zoos should play in housing threatened species.

Many U.S. zoos are expected to seek new elephants in coming decades as their current animals become too old to breed and eventually begin dying off. But animal rights groups say wild animals should be left in the wild, where they have more space and where their social structure remains intact.

The groups say the proposed elephant importation could start a dangerous trend.

“This is just the beginning,” said Tanya Sanerib, an attorney at Meyer & Glitzenstein, which filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., last month. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg of the zoos bringing elephants in for their exhibitions.”

Zoo officials said the elephants are in danger of being killed at home, because they are overpopulating their reserves and destroying native habitat. A statement from the head of Swaziland’s big game parks says the number of elephants at the Mkhaya Game Reserve has to be controlled and that the country has no other adequately protected land for them.

“The situation is getting more serious day by day,” said Christina Simmons, spokeswoman for the Zoological Society of San Diego, which runs the zoo in Balboa Park and the Wild Animal Park east of Escondido. “They are going to be killed if they are not moved.”

The coalition, by contrast, has accused the zoos of deliberately providing inaccurate information on permit applications about where the elephants would come from and how they were selected. The zoos have denied the charge and have submitted amended applications with more details about both questions.


Tim Van Norman, chief of international permits for the wildlife service, is investigating the allegations and deciding whether to approve the shipment. If he determines that the zoos lied, he will be required to rule them ineligible for the permits.

“At this point, no decision has been made whether they lied to us or not,” he said. “It’s still an open application.”

To grant a permit, the wildlife service must determine several things, including that the elephants are not for primarily commercial purposes, that the importation will have no negative effect on the African elephant population and that the zoos are equipped to house and care for the animals.

The African elephant, a threatened species, has a population of 400,000 in the wild, down from 1.3 million about 30 years ago. There are roughly 225 African elephants in captivity in North America in zoos and private reserves or with individual owners, according to Deborah Olson, who keeps elephant statistics for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn.

The last time African elephants were legally imported to North American zoos was in 1988, when one went to Edmonton, Canada, and three were transported to Providence, R.I. There was also an importation in 1991 of several African elephants to entertainer Michael Jackson, Olson said.

So many elephants were brought to U.S. zoos in the early 1980s that there wasn’t a need to import more for years, said Mike Keele, of the zoo association. Wildlife service officials said only a few zoos applied for elephant permits between 1989 and 2002, and those were denied.


During that time, Keele and others were working to assess the future of the captive elephant population.

They determined that the population is shrinking rapidly and could disappear in two or three decades, unless more elephants are imported from Africa and used for breeding. U.S. zoos have had some difficulty breeding African elephants, with a number of miscarriages and stillbirths. Of 19 births in the last decade, only eight calves are still alive. And now many of the females in captivity are getting too old to breed.

“Without this import, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain the captive population of elephants in zoos in North America,” said Olson.

The association created a plan in 1997 aimed at increasing the number of elephants that could be bred. With the group’s backing, the Lowry Park Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park applied for permits to import the elephants from Swaziland, a small nation in southern Africa. The permits were granted in September.

“The elephants are going to definitely benefit the community,” said Heather Sitton, spokeswoman for the Lowry Park Zoo. Visitors will have the opportunity to learn about their history and efforts being made to protect their future. “We are continuously working on conservation projects ... and this is something that we feel is important to do.”

The Tampa facility is paying $48,000 for two male and two female elephants, which would be the stars of a new $28-million African exhibit slated to open in spring 2004.


The Zoological Society of San Diego, which runs the zoo in Balboa Park and the Wild Animal Park east of Escondido, is paying $85,000 for one female and six male elephants. Zoo officials said they have been told by reserve personnel that the profits from the sales will be spent on anti-poaching efforts in Swaziland, such as fences, security roads and two-way radios.

In preparation for their arrival, San Diego officials transferred four African elephants to zoos in Chicago and Tyler, Texas. The new elephants, all about 12 years old, would be quarantined before they could be seen by the public, zoo officials said. They intend to breed the new elephants and use them to conduct studies, educate the public and raise money for conservation programs.

But Roberts and other activists say the 11 elephants -- of a total of 45 in Swaziland -- would not have to be killed if they remained in Africa and could instead be taken to other reserves or parks in neighboring countries.

The Ngome Game Reserve in South Africa has said it would be glad to take the 11 elephants, according to a statement from the reserve’s management company.

The groups also charge that neither the Tampa nor the San Diego facility has effectively protected elephants or their keepers. In a highly publicized incident in 1988, an African elephant at the Wild Animal Park was beaten by employees. Three years later, a keeper was killed at the park when an Asian elephant knocked her down and trampled her. And in 1993, an Asian elephant killed a keeper at the Lowry Park Zoo.

“We want to stop this import, because we do not believe that zoos in the United States are capable of caring for elephants,” attorney Sanerib said. “They don’t have the space, and they don’t provide the adequate habitat and social structure for elephants in captivity.”


The lawsuit, filed April 9 against the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior, says the zoos specified in the permit applications that the elephants were captured from the 18,000-acre Mkhaya Game Reserve, but that they were actually taken from 74,000-acre Hlane National Park.

In a letter to the zoos requesting more information, Van Norman said he granted the permits on the assumption that the elephants were from Mkhaya.

“Given that the permit that you currently hold was issued based on the information provided in your application, it would not be valid for importation of elephants collected from an area outside of Mkhaya Game Reserve,” he wrote.

In their response, the zoos acknowledged that some of the elephants were taken from Hlane and that they, too, are in danger of being killed if they are not transferred.

Simmons, of the San Diego Wild Animal Park, said it’s common for the service to ask for clarifying details and that she had no reason to believe the permit would not be reissued.