Friends of Animals has filed an emergency rulemaking petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restrict the ability of U.S. zoos to import African elephants.

“The Trump administration has eviscerated countless environmental regulations and wildlife protections and its haphazard policies that allow for the commercialization of elephants must be stopped,” said Priscilla Feral, president of FoA. “FoA’s petition matters because elephants are dying in zoos. They are being artificially inseminated ad nauseum. No matter how good an exhibit looks, captivity is detrimental to them. It’s time to end cruelty disguised as family entertainment.”

While the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species passed a trade rule banning the exportation of African elephants to captive facilities worldwide in almost all cases on Aug. 27, the U.S. delegation voted against the rule, and South African nations are already threatening to quit the global wildlife trade regulator.

“In the event CITES changes its decision, or that a U.S. zoo tries to take advantage of an exportation loophole the European Union insisted on, Friends of Animals wants to ensure that U.S. law would still prevent the import of the elephants,” said Stephen Hernick, an attorney with FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “The loophole allows a capture and transfer in exceptional circumstances where ‘it is considered that a transfer to ex-situ locations will provide demonstrable in-situ conservation benefits for African elephants’ and where approved by two independent bodies. The existing regulations also vary depending on the country of origin, and we want to ensure that the same tough restrictions apply to all African elephants.”

The emergency petition states that FWS has superficially relied on three premises to determine that zoos’ imports of wild elephants are not for commercial use: the zoos’ status as nonprofits, their plan to breed animals and their role in educating the public as part of their mission.

“It’s a façade to say that just because zoos are non-profits, they don’t have a commercial purpose,” Hernick said. “There’s a lot of evidence that the exhibition of elephants is a big business, but there’s not a lot of evidence zoos are providing education about elephants and their status in the wild. Let this sink in—no American zoo has ever reintroduced an African elephant to the wild, and no credible source has ever claimed that they intend to in the future.”

The gold standard of conservation is returning species to their natural habitats.

FoA’s petition would require zoos to meet the following criteria:

  • The import will benefit the conservation of African elephants in the wild
  • The importer cannot achieve its stated objectives through alternative means
  • The purpose of the import is primarily noncommercial, as evidenced by a detailed analysis of expected revenue signed by a certified public accountant and provided by the importer
  • The elephant will be killed if it is not imported and there is no alternative relocation option in the wild
  • The import is approved by the CITES Animal Committee, in consultation with the Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature
  • FWS assumes that when zoos donate funds to elephant conservation that it’s helping them in the wild. But a closer look at the money trail reveals zoos aren’t directly involved in conservation of elephants—they are typically donating money to other organizations who are doing the work. And the donation amounts are just a percentage of what zoos spend in other areas

“The donation is really a paltry amount compared to the money they are spending to obtain and keep these elephants, the money they are receiving from attendance and the funds they spend on marketing,” Hernick said.