The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to allow zoos in San Diego and Tampa to import eleven African elephants. If the permit is approved, it will be the first time in more than a decade that an African elephant has been captured from the wild and brought into the United States. That's a departure from current conservation efforts that focus on keeping animals in their natural habitat. Animal advocates are promising to do everything they can to fight the plan.
North American zoos are facing a future without one of their most popular animal attractions. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association says the captive population of African elephants - some 225 animals scattered across the United States - can not sustain itself. "Right now, if you look at the demographics of this population, in the next 25 to 30 years we virtually won't have any elephants in North American zoos," said Larry Killmar, the deputy director of collections at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. "It's an aging population and reproduction is not anywhere close to sustainability levels."
That analysis, prepared over two years by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, prompted the San Diego Zoological Society to begin looking for African elephants capable of breeding. They found them in Swaziland, where the nation's two elephant reserves are overcrowded. Larry Killmar said Swaziland officials agreed to sell seven wild elephants to San Diego and four to the Lowrey Zoo in Tampa - instead of shooting them.
"This is only, you know, 11 animals coming in," said Mr. Killmar. "We should be able to get calves out of all of these animals on a regular basis and that would be a huge, huge step in stopping the deterioration of that population."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending an approval for the transfer, and could issue a final ruling soon. However, In Defense of Animals spokeswoman Susanne Roy says there's no good reason to bring the animals to the United States.
"The zoos are claiming that this is a conservation-oriented move," she said. "And in fact it promotes the trade in African elephants, which are a threatened species."
Ms. Roy says she's concerned about the health of the 11 elephants, which have spent nearly three months in holding pens in Swaziland awaiting the transfer. She says it's wrong to take African elephants out of the wild, just so they can be put into zoos.
"They've had elephants in captivity for a number of years," added Ms. Roy. "They've had an active effort underway to breed them and the elephants simply don't breed well in captivity. And it's because they don't thrive in captive conditions."
While keepers sweep out an elephant barn at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a half dozen Asian elephants wander in their nearby one-hectare compound. They are the only pachyderms currently living at the Park. Under the direction of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the facility shipped its four aging African elephants to zoos in Chicago and Texas. A male, with tusks that are nearly as long as its trunk, welcomes a female that just entered the yard.
Hearing the trumpet, a group of young boys anxiously run up to keeper Jeff Andrews.
"What kind of elephants are these," the children asked.
"These are Asian elephants," Mr. Andrews replied.
"See I told you guys, I told you...Just making sure," said one of the children.
Asian elephants have smaller ears than those from Africa, a one-fingered trunk, and rounded backs. But the captive population faces the same fate as their African cousins? However, with a declining population in the wild, it's unlikely that any Asian elephants will be captured for a breeding program. In contrast, the need for breeding age African elephants in North America comes when the wild populations are overrunning their natural habitats.
"There is a need to control elephant populations and the question is how is that going to be done," said Michael Hutchins, director of conservation science for The American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
"Is it going to be done through shooting... or could accredited, well-managed zoological parks utilize some of these animals in the service of conservation?" he asked.
Mr. Hutchins says North American Zoo's need a vibrant captive herd to publicize the threats elephants face in Africa: loss of habitat, poaching, wars. In Defense of Animals spokeswoman Susanne Roy says zoos don't need more elephants? they need to improve their use of technology to get the conservation message out.
"Virtual reality exhibits where they can experience an elephant habitat in Swaziland," she said. "And IMAX films. All sorts of high-tech ways that the zoo could actually teach people about what these elephants are really like and what the real problems facing them in Africa are."
Zoo officials say dealing with the real problems faced by elephants in America will help resolve some of the problems the animals face in Africa. But animal rights advocates say if the San Diego and Lowery Park Zoos are given approval to import the 11 elephants from Swaziland, the move will encourage other zoos to do likewise, fueling the global trade in wild African elephants.