Photograph by Julia Baier, laif/Redux
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Elephants graze at Mkhaya Game Reserve in Swaziland.

Photograph by Julia Baier, laif/Redux

U.S. Says Yes to Importing 18 Elephants From Swaziland

Despite protests from wildlife activists, the animals will be moved to zoos in Dallas, Omaha, and Wichita.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an application to import 18 African elephants from Swaziland to three zoos in the United States. Since plans were announced to move the elephants, conservationists and proponents of the import have battled over whether the elephants should be transferred to zoos or remain in the wild, where they were born.

The three male elephants and 15 females are estimated to range from 6 to 25 years old. They’ll be sent to the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. A private nonprofit trust in Swaziland called Big Game Parks now manages the animals.

The Service said it granted the permit because it determined that the import would satisfy requirements under the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates international wildlife trade. Under CITES regulations, a country importing wildlife must consider whether the import would be “detrimental to the survival of the species,” among other requirements.

Room for Rhinos, a partnership between the zoos and Swaziland officials, is overseeing the project. “Our goal is to get these elephants to their new homes as quickly as possible," said Mark Reed, executive director of Sedgwick County Zoo, in a statement put out by Room for Rhinos.

Room for Rhinos says the move is essential because elephants are crowding out rhinos and damaging the parks. If the elephants aren’t moved, Room for Rhinos claims, they’ll be killed.

Some 80 conservationists signed a letter last October condemning the proposed import. They argue that removing elephants from their home ranges is unethical. There’s no proof that Swaziland and the zoos explored alternative options for the elephants, the conservationists assert, such as relocating them to other parks within Africa.

The zoos agreed to give Big Game Parks $450,000 in exchange for the elephants, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Whether zoos are able to adequately care for elephants and other large mammals has been hotly debated. In 2012, an award winning special series in the Seattle Times found that the infant mortality rate of elephants in U.S. zoos was nearly triple that of elephants in the wild and that most elephants “died from injury or disease linked to their captivity.” (Read: Should US Zoos Be Allowed To Import 18 African Elephants?).

“We are taking every step possible to ensure the transport of these elephants is humane and does not place them at undue risk or endanger their health,” said Laury Parramore, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife Service, in an email.

“I am heartbroken and devastated by this decision,” Paula Kahumbu, CEO of the Kenya-based nonprofit WildlifeDirect, wrote in an email. “It must take a very cold heart to condemn these emotional babies to a life in a prison camp knowing it will kill their spirit.”

American zoos, she said, “should be ashamed of themselves.”

Christina Russo is a freelance contributor to National Geographic and has been reporting on animal issues for more than a decade. Follow her on Twitter.

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