FoA marches on in the battle to keep elephants out of zoos

by Nicole Rivard

In March, Friends of Animals’ fight to prevent a lifetime of captivity inside commercial attractions in the U.S. for 18 Swaziland elephants, most of whom are currently under 12 years of age, came to an abrupt and devious end as three zoos secretly shipped them to their facilities, robbing them of their freedom, families and day in court.The underhandedness of this move cannot be overstated.

This is the first time since 2003 that elephants have been taken from their natural range in Africa for purposes of populating U.S. zoos. Since then, our scientific understanding of the impacts that removing elephants from their habitat and families and confining them in zoo exhibits have on them has grown tremendously,” said Michael Harris, director of Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program.

The three zoos—the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and Omaha, Nebraska’s Henry Doorly Zoo—had applied for and obtained from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) a permit to import these elephants from a national park in Swaziland managed by Big Game Parks (BGP), a non-profit trust. Instead of allowing its elephants to roam freely, BGP confines them behind fences to only approximately six and 19 percent of the Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve.

Only 39 elephants lived in Swaziland when the zoos applied for a permit. Friends of Animals (FoA) filed a lawsuit soon after the permit was issued claiming that that USFWS had a mandatory duty under the National Environmental Policy Act to fully evaluate and disclose whether the elephants, as a result of captivity, would suffer social, psychological, behavioral and physical impacts for the rest of their lives.

The lawsuit was supported by the world’s foremost experts on elephants, including Dr. Marc Bekoff, Dr. Joyce Poole, Dr. Phyllis Lee, Dr. G.A. Bradshaw and the entire board of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group.  

Faced with the real possibility of a court finding that the law compels such disclosure (which certainly would have negatively impacted public and scientific opinion about the proposed transfer), the zoos decided to take no chances. Without informing the court or media, a plane was secretly sent from Kansas City on March 5 to retrieve the elephants (one of the elephants was pregnant) ahead of a scheduled hearing on March 17, at which time the court was to hear FoA’s legal arguments.

Thanks to the brave actions of a local Swaziland person, within mere hours of the plane landing, FoA had enough information to support a request for an emergency restraining order, which was temporarily granted by the court. Sadly, the zoos had already moved to anesthetize, crate and move the elephants onto the plane. Faced with sparse medical testimony from the zoos’ own veterinarians, the court dissolved the restraining order shortly after midnight in Swaziland. The elephants were flown to the U.S. before another day dawned.


While we decided to drop our lawsuit, rest assured FoA is still attacking the issue of stopping future exports of elephants from their natural African range through the legal and regulatory

process. Our approach is three-pronged—first we want to increase protections for elephants in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, which means up listing them from threatened to endangered.

Second, our goal is to eliminate the assertion that U.S. zoos displaying elephants are non-commercial activities.

Third, we are devoted to educating the public about the lives elephants and other animals are subjected to when they are imprisoned in commercial attractions in the United States. Regarding the latter, scientists now know that elephants nearly always endure severe physical and physiological hardship when they have been taken from their natural range and families and exploited for commercial purposes as these elephants were—they were first brought to Swaziland from Kruger National Park in South Africa. G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., and Lorin Lindner Ph.D., write in the article “Post-Traumatic Stress and Elephants in Captivity,” that “events or stressors that underlie the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include threat of death; physical abuse; deprivation; torture; isolation; forced captivity; and witnessing the loss, death or threat of death to a loved one. All elephants in captivity have experienced most, if not all, of these events. Splitting up of familiar bonds is known to be highly cruel and traumatic to elephants—in those that are sent as well as in those that remain behind.

Once they reach the zoos elephants become depressed, lose their appetites, and can become fidgety, dissociative and/or even aggressive. Moreover, it is well documented that captive elephants have a much greater chance of developing health problems and dying at a much earlier age when they are transported overseas and endure such stress factors. 

This is not something that the three zoos involved wanted to see a court order USFWS to take into consideration. Another thing the three zoos involved don’t want to put a spotlight on, since they claim to be primarily non-commercial entities devoted to education and conservation, is the miniscule amount of money they actually dedicate to in situ conservation, which is conservation in the natural range of elephants.

Conservation efforts within the field is crucial and involves things like protecting rich and varied ecosystems (in this case in Africa); researching and highlighting the ethical implications of dealing with sentient, long-lived, intelligent and socially complex animals; anti-poaching efforts; outreach to the human communities that share the ecosystems with elephants; and veterinary care. Most importantly it involves reintroduction of orphaned or injured animals into the wild, the gold standard of conservation, according to Kenya’s Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

Amboseli Trust for Elephants is responsible for a trailblazing research program that protects the lives of approximately 1,652 elephants in 56 families, including close to 380 independent adult males in their natural habitat.

One of the ways they achieve this is tolerance of elephants and wildlife from the local Masai community. In a statement on released last fall about the Swaziland elephants, Amboseli Trust said: “This importation serves no credible conservation purpose. None of the elephants or their offspring will be returned to the wild, the gold standard of conservation. Instead, it is intended to replenish the zoo industry’s dwindling African elephant population in the U.S….The Kingdom of Swaziland and the Dallas Zoo and its partners have offered no evidence that they have seriously explored options for relocation of the elephants to other parks or sanctuaries within Africa, nor on what basis other options were rejected – even though in situ relocation offers real conservation value, the promise of minimal harm and distress to the elephants, and the prospect of a natural life. Claims that poaching, habitat loss and other threats justify relegating these elephants to a lifetime in captivity in a foreign environment are self-serving; used to justify the capture and exports of these animals.”

We couldn’t agree more.