Keep elephants in the wild where they belong (Swaziland/US)


Paula Kahumbu with Andrew Halliday

Date Published

US wildlife officials are considering an application for a permit to import 18 elephants from the southern African nation of Swaziland to three American zoos.

It seems there are too many elephants in Swaziland. According to the website of one of the zoos that will benefit from the deal, “the large elephant population is negatively affecting the land and natural resources inside the parks, changing dense forests into barren landscapes”.

By taking the elephants, the zoos will be saving their lives, since otherwise they would have to be culled. The elephants will be well looked after in their new homes. The zoos will fund conservation projects in Swaziland and use the elephants to teach zoo-goers about conservation and the threats from poaching and ivory trafficking.

A win-win solution? Instinctively, I feel that this narrative is all wrong.

As I sit in my house listening to wild lions roaring in Nairobi National Park, I feel privileged to be a citizen of a country that allows wild animals to be truly wild. What’s upsetting me is the thought that these 18 elephants will never again experience the savannah and big skies of Africa, and of the life that awaits them in a land where they will endure bitter winters and a diet of hay.

I imagine the elephants confined in pens and small enclosures, disoriented by the screams of excited visitors and the flashing lights of their mobile phone cameras. No more adventure across the African plains, no more mud wallows, or meeting long lost relatives who come back from an adventure in other lands.

They will be mated, if and when the zoo decides, and with whomever the zoo decides to mate them with. They will be poked and prodded, injected, and basically forced to do as is expected. They will not be elephants any more; they will be reduced to entertainment for curious human beings.

A closer look at the story reveals that not all is as it appears. News coverage gives the impression that Swaziland is teeming with elephants. In fact, according to the latest IUCN census, there are just 35 elephants in the whole country. Swaziland is planning to send more than half its total population of elephants to zoos in the USA!

Swaziland is sometimes cited as a conservation success story, and there are many things to admire in the country’s approach to wildlife, not least the exceedingly severe penalties for poaching.

But Swaziland is a small, landlocked country with a total area less than that of the nearby Kruger National Park in South Africa, too small to make a significant contribution to elephant conservation. Its big game is confined to small, fenced off conservancies that are mainly used for tourism.

The animals here are not really wild; they were reintroduced to the country and placed in areas too small to support truly wild populations, which are carefully managed to resemble natural landscapes.

There is nothing wrong with this. Nor is it wrong to want to reduce elephant numbers to restore the ecological balance of the reserves. Sending them away is surely better option than previous failed solutions, including grotesque attempts to vasectomise male elephants.

But there are many good reasons not to send them to zoos in the USA. US zoos have a very poor record on elephant welfare. The campaign group “In Defence of Animals” has published an annual list of the ten worst zoos for elephants for the last 11 years. The list for 2014 makes chilling reading, including cases of elephants suffering from frostbite, chained to concrete floors and even being forced to wash cars in a so-called safari park. (This abuse of the noble Kiswahili word “safari” makes me shudder.)

A quick Internet search reveals other monstrosities: captive elephants made to do “yoga” by their keepers and even being used to predict the winner of the Super Bowl. The mental anguish suffering by these elephants is all too clear from their postures and facial expressions, in photographs that I can hardly bear to look at. We are poisoning our own societies with these cruel freak shows.

Faced with public outcry over the treatment of elephants the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has issued new rules requiring zoos to give elephants more space and keep them in social groups. Many US zoos are unable to comply with these requirements and are getting rid of their elephants.

But this doesn’t go far enough. I agree with wildlife activists in the US who are campaigning for elephants to be banned from zoos altogether.

The elephants from Swaziland, we are assured, will be sent to accredited zoos and housed in state-of-the-art enclosures in the company of other animals. Let’s look at one of these zoos (chosen at random): Sedgewick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. The zoo claims it will offer elephants a “safe, healthy future … in expansive new herd habitats unlike any seen before, offering the ability to establish multigenerational herds in stimulating environments that meet each elephant’s complex physical, mental and social needs”.

The artist’s impressions of the planned 5 acre enclosure look nice. Still, 5 acres is still an area only about 100 by 200 metres, not much for animals which are accustomed to walking 10 to 20 km a day in the wild, or for six elephants whose natural home range size is measured in tens of square kilometres.

The elephants will still have to spend cold winter days and long winter nights indoors – hardly a “stimulating environment” (although their hardships in this respect will be nothing compared to the suffering of poor Lucy, in Edmonton Zoo in Canada, where temperatures are well below freezing for almost half the year).

What worries me is Sedgewick Zoo’s previous record: this zoo has form in elephant abuse. It currently has one elephant, Stephanie, who has lived alone since she arrived in the zoo as a two-year-old in 1972. According to the zoo’s website, Stephanie “seems to enjoy walking backwards”.

How quaint! Hasn’t it occurred to them that this abnormal behaviour is a symptom of some underlying psychopathology? This is hardly surprising in an animal that has been kept in solitary confinement for more than 40 years. Most likely, it is literally driving her mad.

We don’t let proven child abusers adopt children just because they say they have seen the error of their ways. Why should it be different for zoos and elephants?

Finally, the idea that bring elephants to US zoos will help educate US citizens about the poaching crisis in Africa seems far-fetched. Seeing an elephant in a cage or an enclosure provides visitors with a good photo opportunity for their Facebook pages. It teaches nothing about the power and intelligence and rich social lives of these remarkable animals, or about the complexity of the poaching crisis that is threatening their existence in the wild.

If there is money available to educate the US public about ivory trafficking, there are much better ways it could be spent: for example producing films to show on prime-time TV, setting up a trust fund to educate US citizens about wild elephants, forging links between schoolkids in the US and in the elephant range states, or bringing African wildlife activists on speaking tours to America to make the case in person.

And for the Swazi elephants, despite the denials of those behind this scheme, I’m sure that many African countries have plenty of space to move them to, where they can live out their lives with dignity.