Animal rights activists, who had a court date to block the action, condemned the transfer. Removing elephants from the wild for display in zoos is cruel and outdated, they said.
The operation involved sedating three males and 15 females, crating and hoisting them aboard a cargo plane in Swaziland. They range in age from 6 to 25 years.
On arrival in the U.S., five were transferred to the Dallas Zoo under police escort. The remaining 12 were divided between zoos in Kansas and Nebraska.
The Connecticut-based Friends of Animals said they were due to argue against transferring the ‘Stolen 18′ in a US Federal Court. They accused the zoos of sneaking the elephants out of Africa to avoid a court hearing on March 17.
“This is blatantly underhanded, I’ve never seen anything like it in 20 years doing this,” said Michael Harris, Friends of Animals’ legal director. “The legal fight to save them is over. But the fight to make them martyrs is just beginning – they really are the stolen 18.”
The Dallas Zoo called the accusation “outlandish.” The animals, said the zoos, faced certain death at home and are better off in the U.S. In exchange for the pachyderms, the zoos pledged to donate funds toward the rhino conservation efforts at Big Game Parks, a Swazi-based private nonprofit trust.
It is the second sell-off of elephants by the Swazi government of King Mswati III. In 2003, the Kingdom of Swaziland sold eleven of its elephant herd to two zoos in the US. At the time, Swaziland had less than 40 elephants, many of whom came as orphans from South Africa following a culling program in Kruger National Park.
At that time, Swaziland declared that if the animals were not taken by the two US zoos “refrigerator space had been reserved for their bodies”, recalled “Will,” of Born Free.
Gregg Hudson, president of the Dallas Zoo said: “There are those who would rather see elephants die than live in accredited zoos. We strongly disagree with that position.”
He said the Dallas facilities are spacious enough for the giant animals to roam and forage.
Elephants are listed as an Endangered Species due to sharp declines in their numbers from the action of poachers seeking their ivory tusks. It’s estimated that an elephant is killed by poachers roughly every 20 minutes.