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.
Let that sink in.
However, zoos in the U.S. have gotten a free pass from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and been allowed to import live African elephants to lure visitors on the assumption that the purpose is primarily non-commercial and it will benefit the conservation of African elephants in the wild. The gold standard of conservation, though, is increasing the number of animals in the wild and preventing habitat loss.
Adding insult to injury, three U.S. zoos’ importation of more than a dozen elephants from Swaziland in 2016 supported that country’s corrupt management goals to reduce its elephant population, a scheme Friends of Animals litigated against.
That’s why we were gratified to learn that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in August passed a trade rule banning the exportation of African elephants to captive facilities worldwide in almost all cases despite the U.S. delegation’s opposition.
Being able to deliver on our goal that the Swaziland elephants would be the last African elephants to be robbed of their families and freedom is rewarding. We had kept the story of the 18 Swaziland elephants (one died) destined for U.S. zoos in the headlines and delivered a public relations nightmare for the zoos involved. But FoA is not one to rest on its laurels. In the event CITES changes its decision, or that a U.S. zoo might try and take advantage of an exportation loophole the European Union insisted on that allows a capture and transfer in exceptional circumstances where “it is considered that a transfer to exsitu locations will provide demonstrable insitu conservation benefits for African elephants,” FoA wants to ensure U.S. law would still prevent the import of the elephants.
So, in September, we filed a petition asking that FWS revise its permitting regulations governing how it determines whether elephants would be used primarily for commercial purposes.
“FWS has superficially relied on three premises to determine 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,” said Stephen Hernick, FoA’s Wildlife Law Program attorney.
“It’s a façade to say that just because zoos are nonprofits, they don’t have a commercial purpose. There’s a lot of evidence that this is a big business; but there’s not a lot of evidence zoos are providing education about elephants and their status in the wild.”
FWS assumes that when zoos donate funds to elephant conservation that it’s helping them in the wild.
But, Hernick points out, 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, or that they are receiving from attendance and that they spend on marketing,” Hernick said.
FoA’s petition would require zoos to meet the following criteria (knowing they could never do so) therefore preventing future importations:
• It cannot obtain a captive-bred elephant for a similar purpose
• The import will benefit the conservation of African elephants in the wild
• 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
Hernick says the CITES decision and FoA’s petition comes at a critical time because FWS officials confirmed that some U.S. zoos were plotting again to import elephants. EVIDENCE OF BIG BUSINESS The exploitation of elephants in the U.S. dates to 1796 when a 2-year-old female elephant from India became the first to be imported into the country. After arriving in New York, she was exhibited to curious audiences along the East Coast, according to Natural History Magazine. Old letters reveal the motives of captain Jacob Crowninshield.
Writing to his brothers, he said: “We take home a fine young elephant two years old, at $450. It is almost as large as a very large ox, and I dare say we shall get it home safe, if so, it will bring at least $5,000.”
So, from day one, elephants were brought into this country for commercial purposes. FoA’s petition points out that Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo set an attendance record in 2016 with more than 2 million visitors after exhibiting the Swaziland elephants.
And the zoo spent $73 million on an African Grasslands Exhibit, the opening of which coincided with the arrival of elephants. That same year, Sedgewick County Zoos, which also imported the Swaziland elephants, had 125,000 more visitors than in any of the previous six years. In general, despite increased revenues, conservation funding is always a tiny percentage of zoos’ expenses.
The gross disparity was revealed in the 2011 report, “An Optimal Future for Woodland Park Elephants,” that analyzed how zoos direct money from their turnstiles.
The ratio between the U.S. zoo industry’s in situ conservation donations ($2 million) and money spent on captive elephant programs ($340 million) over the past 12 or so years is $1 donated for every $170 spent on themselves.
This shows that only one-half of one cent ($.005) of every $1 spent on zoo elephant programs went to elephants in the wild.
The Dallas Zoo, for example, which also imported the Swaziland elephants, spent $1,149,000 on marketing and $569,000 on conservation/other, according to it’s 2017 annual report. The zoo also spent $6.9 million on zoo improvements and animal acquisition.
The Dallas Zoo then divides that $569,000 among 39 field conservation projects and only two have anything to do with elephants. One is the International Elephant Foundation, a nonprofit created and led by U.S. zoos.
While the Tarangire Elephant project does work to protect migratory corridors for elephants in Tanzania, it does nothing for elephants in Swaziland, where the Dallas Zoo imported elephants from in 2016.
ZOOS BREED BECAUSE OF GREED
FoA’s petition also reveals that FWS does not currently examine whether captive breeding programs are aimed at the longterm protection of the affected species. The import of the Swaziland elephants to the Omaha, Sedgewick and Dallas zoos and their subsequent breeding programs were aimed at expanding the captive zoo population, not the recovery of wild elephants.
Actually, elephants’ reproductive ability is adversely affected in captivity. A 2016 study of captive female elephants in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums found that 77% exhibited irregular ovarian cycles or did not cycle at all.
Zoos have addressed this by either subjecting the female to countless procedures of artificial insemination or transporting them long distances to breed. At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, for example, zookeepers tried to inseminate Chai, a female elephant who spent most of her life there, at least 112 times.
She only gave birth after being transported to Missouri to breed with a bull. That lone offspring subsequently died due to the elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, a disease that almost solely occurs in zoos. (Chai was moved to the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015 after a bruising political and court fight. Activists had wanted her transferred to a sanctuary in California. She died in January of 2016 at the age of 37.) The infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is 40%, almost triple of what it is in the wild.
ENTERTAINMENT, NOT EDUCATION
Zoos like to claim they inspire visitors to act to help elephants and other wildlife, but the research tells a different story. At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and several British zoos, studies showed limited knowledge acquisition by visitors and no impact on behavior changes. Studies at the Hamilton Zoo in New Zealand revealed that visitors wanted to see animals, not learn about them.
Other research suggests that zoo visitors instructed on specific, concrete steps to aid wildlife conservation reported three months later that they had not followed even one zoo suggestion. The zoo industry relies on results from a single push poll it paid for in 2004 to assert that zoo visitors “appreciate” elephants more after visiting them at zoos.
“Appreciate is a vague, non scientific term, impossible to define or measure. It is not science,” writes Lisa Kane, author of the “Optimal Future” report, in a rebuttal to the zoo’s claims concerning wildlife conservation. David Hancocks, a former director of several zoos with more than 30 years of experience, worries zoos have painted themselves as saviors of the wild.
He told National Geographic: “I fear this has instilled a false sense of security in the public mind. Many people now believe they don’t have to worry about saving animals, because zoos are doing the job.”
WHY OUR PETITION MATTERS
Elephants are dying in American zoos. Not only that, when elephants are stolen from the wild it inflicts great harm on all members of the herd left behind. In December 2012, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle Times did a first-of-its-kind analysis of elephant fatalities at accredited U.S. zoos for the past 50 years and uncovered 390 elephant deaths. Most died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity caused by being penned or chained for days/weeks. Of the 321 deaths for which the Times had complete records, half were by age 23, though elephants have expected life spans of 50 to 60 years.
Perhaps no one has described why zoos are detrimental to elephants better than the late Dr. Daphne Sheldrick, co-founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a true conservation organization in Africa that works to rescue, rehabilitate and release elephants back into the wild who were orphaned due to human activity. FoA has visited the orphan – age in Kenya.
“Elephants should not be confined in captivity, no matter how attractive the facilities may appear to us humans,” Sheldrick said in “An Elephant Never Forgets: Pachy – derms, Politics and Policy at the San Francisco Zoo” published in the Journal of Animals Law and Ethics .
“No artificial situation can give an elephant what it needs in terms of space, for 100 miles is a mere stroll for these animals; our 10-year-old orphaned bull having covered that distance in just one day, in search of friends. It is cruel and unethical, and there is nothing educational in looking at a miserable captive in an unnatural setting.”
Friends of Animals couldn’t agree more.