So far, it has been a big year for African elephants.
Protecting Instead of Poaching
One of Africa’s most iconic species, the African elephant is the largest land animal in the world, with males sometimes standing at thirteen feet tall and weighing up to fourteen thousand pounds. Typically found traveling in herds and family groups, elephants are known for their dexterous trunks, remarkable intelligence, and their beautiful ivory tusks.
For centuries, their tusks have been prized for mounted trophies, jewelry, decorative carvings, musical instruments, and more. In fact, while several tusked species can be hunted and used for the ivory market, elephant ivory is considered the most desirable. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that nearly one hundred African elephants are killed every day in order to satisfy the ivory trade, a number publicized in their campaign entitled 96 Elephants.
On June 2, 2016, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service made a sweeping attempt to try to change that as they announced a near total ban of the African elephant ivory trade. Previous laws, while strict regarding the importation of new ivory, were rather lax in regards to ivory already in the United States. Many of those regulations were put in place in 1990 following a decade in which the African elephant population plummeted by nearly fifty percent. Today, this keystone species is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, with only an estimated 400,000 remaining in the wild.
The Swaziland Seventeen
The enhanced protective measure comes less than six months after the Fish and Wildlife Service approved the transport of seventeen African elephants to three United States zoos from Swaziland, a country in which previous elephant populations were completely wiped out by the late 1940s. Between the years of 1987 and 1994, elephants were reintroduced to Swaziland, a country about the size Connecticut, but were isolated from other elephant populations in Africa and restricted to fenced areas.
According to the information provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year, by 2014, the almost forty elephants living in Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve had “grown beyond existing space limitations” and presented “a significant risk to maintaining biodiversity in the parks” especially to the parks’ black rhinoceroses.
As a result, over a dozen elephants were scheduled to be culled (in other words, put to death).
Instead, the Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Witchita, intervened, partnering together to ensure a safe future for these elephants. While also pledging nearly a half million dollars to black rhino conservation, the zoos focused on the individual elephants’ futures, providing them with food and water while they remained in Swaziland and offering to transport them to the United States and take them in. Seventeen African elephants relocated to the three zoos this past March, completing what Gregg Hudson, the president of the Dallas Zoo, called “a rescue mission”.
A Sweet Surprise
About ten weeks later, the Dallas Zoo announced that one of the rescued elephants, Mlilo, gave birth to a male calf. Mlilo showed signs of a potential pregnancy before her relocation, but all of the tests were inconclusive. Despite the harsh conditions of her native Swaziland and the fact that breeding age male elephants of the area are vasectomized, Mlilo beat the odds as the 175 pound calf seems as though he was carried to term after a twenty-two month gestation period.
Mother and calf are not currently on exhibit, and may not be for several months, according to zoo officials, as they continue to receive veterinary and keeper care and bond with the other members of the herd. The little boy is said to be nursing, exploring, and vocalizing as normal.
“This really validates why it was so important we get them here,” Hudson said. Now at the Dallas Zoo, the rescued elephants and new calf, as well as the individuals that found homes at the Sedgwick County Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, will be constantly cared for by a team of animal care specialists as part of the zoos’ lifetime commitment to these individuals.
Zoos, conservationists, and animal lovers around the world still have a long way to go to solidify a bright future for this iconic species. It is likely that they will still struggle with habitat destruction and poaching for some time to come, but strides have been made in the right direction. As Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a recent statement, “We still have much to do to save this species, but today is a good day for the African elephant.”
We couldn’t agree more.