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The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) recently announced that three WAZA member zoos in the United States have formed a conservation partnership with the Kingdom of Swaziland’s wildlife management authority to to move wild African elephants to zoos in America. 

© lookpictures
© lookpictures

The project aims to ensure the welfare of 18 African elephants that will become part of the North American population managed by zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), reduce the numbers of elephants in Swaziland’s parks to sustainable levels, and reduce competition between elephants and rhinos.

Bolstering the population of rhinos, and black rhinos in particular, is a top priority for Big Game Parks and Swaziland’s wildlife conservation authority. To that end, removing a total of 18 elephants (3 adult cows and 15 weaned sub-adults aged between 6 and 15 years old) from Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve was approved by management.

Since establishing its first wildlife sanctuary in 1964, Swaziland has used principles of conservation and wildlife management to restore its parks to a sustainable state. Big Game Parks has successfully reintroduced more than 22 animal species into Swaziland’s parks system and also operates a highly effective anti-poaching unit. One result is that current numbers of elephants in the parks now exceed carrying capacity. Elephants present overwhelming competition with rhinos for food, water and territory.

It is also a priority of Big Game Parks to choose an option over culling whenever possible. Relocation of elephants in the region is unrealistic because of the risk of poaching, elephant-human conflict, loss of habitat, and the worst drought conditions that the region has experienced in 25 years. The 18 elephants would relocate in social groups, each comprising six individuals, to each of the three partner zoos in the United States:  The Dallas Zoo (Texas), Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium (Nebraska), and Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo (Kansas). In addition to being accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), each zoo is also a current member of WAZA.

The plan, endorsed by the AZA Elephant Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), is expected to improve long-term sustainability of the North American elephant population. The African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) in the Republic of South Africa, one of the Specialist Groups in the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of IUCN – The World Conservation Union, has also written a letter of support of the plan to remove the elephants in order to provide needed habitat for rhinos in Swaziland’s parks.

The three U.S. zoos, each with considerable private financial support from its local community, recently completed new, large-scale, indoor-outdoor facilities designed to reflect the most current science-based studies of elephant care and welfare in zoo settings. Each zoo will care for a social group of elephants with experienced veterinary and animal care staff who are committed to robust environmental enrichment and positive reinforcement based on empathy, reward and cooperation, and restricted contact. Each zoo is also committed to ongoing support of Swaziland’s rhino conservation programme.

It is important to note that elephants have successfully transitioned from Swaziland to U.S. zoos in the past. In 2003, 11 elephants arrived in the U.S. from Swaziland, which has resulted in 14 births to date. Because of current drought in Swaziland, fodder is being imported from the Republic of South Africa for the 18 elephants being cared for in bomas within the parks. It is hoped that the planned relocation will proceed without delay before such food supplies in the region, in demand by farmers as well, are exhausted. Permit requests are currently under review by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for import, and by the permitting authority of Swaziland for export, in full compliance with CITES requirements.

To view the full press release, click here.

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