The Sedgwick County Zoo’s lone elephant, Stephanie, may be about to get some company.
Sedgwick County Zoo seeks to be one of three U.S. zoos to receive elephants from the southern African nation of Swaziland.
The zoo partnered with the Dallas Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to form a conservation partnership with a wildlife trust in Swaziland. Each zoo will receive six African elephants, pending approval of the imports by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This is huge. This is exciting. The staff is pumped,” zoo director Mark Reed said Friday. “… I cannot tell you the relief that is today.”
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Reed said the zoo hopes to welcome its six elephants in late November or early December.
The five females and one male would be the first new elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo in more than 40 years.
It could also be the first transfer of wild elephants from Swaziland to the United States since 2003, Reed said.
The zoo’s most expensive exhibit ever, the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley, is scheduled to open in May 2016.
Resources out of balance
Kansas could get new elephants because Swaziland has a rare problem: too many of them.
African elephants are a threatened species that has been targeted by poachers, particularly in west, central and east Africa. Yet southern Africa has remained “the main stronghold and safe haven for elephant populations,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Elephant herd numbers are doing better in countries like Botswana and Swaziland, a small land-locked kingdom about the size of New Jersey.
But national parks in the southern African kingdom can no longer support the current number of elephants, Reed said.
“Swaziland is going through the worst drought in its history,” Reed said. “Not only are they having cattle losses, but wildlife is suffering.”
The parks have seen their resources thrown out of balance by the number of elephants.
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“The parks’ elephants consume sparse vegetation faster than it can naturally regenerate,” according to the zoos’ news release.
A Swazi nonprofit, Big Game Parks Trust, is looking to export or kill some elephants to make room for rhinos in its parks, according to the news release. Black rhinos are considered critically endangered in southern Africa because of poaching.
The three zoos and the wildlife trust worked out the conservation partnership. The zoos must pay for the transportation of the elephants from Africa to North America but are not directly paying for the elephants.
However, the zoos plan to continue support for Swaziland’s rhino conservation efforts. The Sedgwick County Zoo has committed $30,000 to those conservation efforts, and the zoos in Dallas and Omaha have done the same, said Sedgwick County Zoo spokeswoman Melissa Graham.
“We have also all made a commitment of minimally $30,000 for the next four years,” she said.
“Money is going into conservation programs and not into people’s pockets,” Reed said.
The Dallas Zoo, on behalf of the zoos in Omaha and Wichita, filed an application to import up to 18 elephants from Swaziland, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman.
She said the service is reviewing the permit application with an international convention on trading endangered species. The draft environmental assessment should be available for public comment within the next two weeks.
“Our evaluation and conclusions will be based on the best available information and our legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act and other relevant laws and regulations,” she said.
Animal rights groups often oppose keeping elephants in zoos. Rachel Mathews, counsel with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the group will urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to deny the import permits.
“Humans have no business stealing wild animals and then locking them in their cages just to sell tickets,” Mathews said. “Elephants need to socialize, to explore vast areas, to play, and they need the freedom to do it on their own terms. What zoos do is stifle those natural instincts and behaviors.”
She says PETA is considering “all legal avenues that we have to challenge this import.”
“There’s no question that taking elephants from the wild and putting them in a zoo is entirely inconsistent with the Endangered Species Act,” Mathews said.
Reed expects some opposition to the elephant imports, but he said he thinks the applications will be approved.
“We think the case law is there,” he said.
If the permits are denied, the elephants cannot leave Swaziland
If approved, the elephants will be flown to the United States. The cost of the transfer is not yet known.
Reed said zookeepers would gradually introduce the new elephants to Stephanie, first by sight.
“We believe these elephants are going to be very happy,” Reed said. “… We know that they will not have direct contact at first when they’re unloaded.”
“We will let them tell us who is going to get along.”
The elephants would live in the new elephant barn at the zoo. The Sedgwick County Zoological Society completed the $10.6 million fundraising campaign for construction of the new elephant exhibit in June. Of that, the county government contributed $5.3 million, approved last fall.
The zoo will also have the largest pool for elephants in the world, Reed said.
Getting more elephants in the zoo has long been a priority, both inside and outside Sedgwick County.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires that accredited zoos featuring elephants must have at least three females, two males or three elephants of mixed gender by September 2016.
“We know from our experience that elephants thrive when they’re in groups of three or more,” said AZA spokesman Rob Vernon on the accreditation standards.
For more than 40 years, only two African elephants, Stephanie and Cinda, lived alongside each other at the Sedgwick County Zoo. They arrived in Wichita as orphans from Kruger National Park in South Africa in 1972.
But on Nov. 5, 2014, Cinda died. She was 43.
Cinda’s death did not derail plans for a new elephant exhibit, but the zoo had some choices to make.
“We could phase out elephants and send Stephanie off to another zoo. There would have been many zoos that would love to have her even as old as she is,” Reed said. “We could help hold bull (male) elephants.”
“Or we could bring in and put together, somehow, a breeding group,” Reed said. “That’s what our board decided to do so that we could be part of the solution.”
Reed says he hopes the new elephants will build awareness of the species’ struggles with poaching and habitat loss in Africa.
“You can’t appreciate and help the situation in Africa if you can’t have the opportunity to see and have that emotional reaction with the elephants here,” Reed said.