Sedgwick County zookeeper Kinna Middleton rewards 43-year-old elephant Stephanie with a treat. (Jan. 8, 2015) Jaime Green File photo
Sedgwick County zookeeper Kinna Middleton rewards 43-year-old elephant Stephanie with a treat. (Jan. 8, 2015) Jaime Green File photo

Local

Feds say they prefer approving elephant import to Sedgwick County Zoo

By Daniel Salazar

The Wichita Eagle

October 26, 2015 08:03 PM

Six African elephants are a little closer to becoming Sedgwick County residents.

Newly released federal documents say U.S. wildlife officials are leaning toward approving the import of 18 African elephants from the South African nation of Swaziland to three American zoos, including six elephants to Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo.

The government is now seeking public comment before it makes the decision final.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that issues the import permits, is weighing three different options.

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The Service says it can:

▪ approve the permits,

▪ block the elephant transfer to the U.S.

▪ or allow fewer elephants to make the flight across the Atlantic.

The Service says approval is the frontrunner based on its research so far.

“That was the one that was the preferred alternative,” said Timothy Van Norman, who is chief of a Fish and Wildlife Service branch responsible for issuing permits.

The red tape

Sedgwick County Zoo announced a conservation partnership with zoos in Dallas and Omaha about a month ago. Under the agreement, each zoo would receive six elephants from a wildlife trust in Swaziland if they get the permits.

The Dallas Zoo, on behalf of the Omaha and Wichita zoos, applied for the permits. The permits would have to comply with federal and international laws on wildlife protection, namely the Endangered Species Act and an international treaty on the trade of species threatened with extinction. African elephants are considered threatened with extinction in the wild due to poaching and habitat loss.

Each option is being considered by how it would impact the ecology of Swaziland, the welfare of those elephants, captive elephant populations in the U.S. and other protected species.

Coming to America

The Fish and Wildlife Service, in its recently published draft environmental assessment of the zoos’ request, says approving the permits is preferred because:

▪ The elephants would be killed by Swazi authorities if they aren’t sent to America. The trust that is managing the two wildlife areas wants to keep the elephant population in check. Elephants are damaging trees and vegetation in the two protected areas that the critically endangered black rhino also depends on for its habitat.

▪ Zoo personnel are qualified to care for the elephants and will work to prevent undue stress throughout the transport.

▪ The zoos will keep the elephants in “a natural ‘family’ group similar to what would be found in the wild.” Among the elephants are three juvenile males that would be shipped with their mothers.

▪ The zoos plan to send a total of $450,000 over five years to Swazi conservation efforts.

▪ The current elephants in the three zoos (like Stephanie in Wichita) will benefit from a larger herd.

▪ The new elephants are good candidates for breeding herds in the United States, which are in short supply.

▪ Elephants provide educational opportunities for the public about “the current poaching crisis that is occurring throughout much of the elephant’s native range.”

Other options

The import permits could also be rejected by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which would mean the elephants could not be transported from Swaziland to the United States.

Big Game Parks, the wildlife trust that manages the two protected areas in Swaziland, says the trust would be forced to cull, or kill, the elephants to keep the population in balance.

The elephants have already been transferred out of the protected areas to enclosures pending the outcome of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision.

“The only alternative to export from Africa is culling,” according to the assessment.

But the Service says Big Game Parks’ conservation efforts would be harmed without the money from the American zoos, which would likely no longer be sent to Swaziland under their agreement.

A third option would call for the importation of fewer than 18 elephants, the number the zoos hope to get from Swaziland.

But existing elephant family structures may be split up if some elephants are left behind in Swaziland.

And the Swazis would likely receive fewer conservation dollars from the American zoos.

The Service did not suggest options other than culling the elephants to the Swazis or the wildlife trust, saying that is outside of the Americans’ jurisdiction.

What’s next

The draft environmental assessment for the government’s looming decision is now online.

The public has until Nov. 23, about four weeks, to submit written comments online or by mail to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

More than 340 comments had been filed by Monday afternoon, many of them objecting to keeping elephants captive in American zoos.

But Van Norman said the Service is looking for more than opinions.

“What we’re looking for is comments that provide additional information or clarity to the situation,” Van Norman said.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” he added. “If we got a million comments that all said ‘we don’t like this’ and three that said ‘we like it’, doesn’t mean we’re going with the million.”

Timeline

It is unknown when the Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision on the permits.

“It really depends on how many comments we end up getting and how long it takes us to get through them,” Van Norman said.

But both the American zoos and the Swazi wildlife officials are eager for a decision on the elephants, he said.

“The sooner we can make the decision, the better. So we’ll certainly try to do this quickly.”

If the permits are approved, groups opposed to elephants in zoos may try to sue the Service to block the transfer.

That happened the last time African elephants were transferred from Swaziland. Animal rights groups sued, unsuccessfully, to block the transfer of 11 elephants to zoos in San Diego and Tampa.

The Sedgwick County Zoo was hoping to have the elephants before the end of the year.

Reach Daniel Salazar at 316-269-6791 or dsalazar@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @imdanielsalazar.

How to weigh in on elephant permits

▪ Online: Go to http://www.regulations.gov. Search the docket number FWS-HQ-IA-2015-0157. Click “Open Docket Folder” link. Click “Comment Now!”

▪ By Mail: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-HQ-IA-2015-0157; Division of Policy, Performance, and Management Programs; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 5275 Leesburg Pike, MS: BPHC; Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

▪ When: Postmarked on or before Nov. 23. Electronic responses due by 10:59 p.m. Central Time on Nov. 23.