Pittsburgh Zoo sought to import 28 African elephants

Feb 29, 2020 | News

By Don Hopey, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium last year spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to capture and export to the U.S. as many as 28 wild, juvenile African elephants from Zimbabwe.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service application documents, 13 of the elephants, two males and 11 females, were ticketed for breeding at the Pittsburgh Zoo’s 724-acre International Conservation Center in Somerset County. Three females each would go to the Kansas City, Maryland and Memphis zoos. Another six elephants were slated for the Elephant Conservation Center in Natural Bridge, Va.

The application was submitted to USFWS on March 21 by Barbara Baker, the Pittsburgh Zoo’s president and chief executive officer.

If the application had been approved, according to the USFWS, it would have been the first ever export of elephants from Zimbabwe, where elephants are listed as “threatened,” and the biggest number of African elephants brought to America since 2016 when 17 elephants arrived from what was then Swaziland, now the tiny kingdom of Eswatini.

The Fish and Wildlife documents, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, detail how the Pittsburgh Zoo would pay a third party provider, Conservation Logistics LLC, to capture the elephants.

According to PETA, snipers in helicopters shoot the juvenile elephants with tranquilizers or sedatives, then use the helicopters to chase off the adult animals. It’s a process the animal advocacy organization said is “traumatic” for the young elephants.

PETA said it has sent a letter urging the Pittsburgh Zoo’s board of directors to adopt policies opposing wild elephant capture, end elephant breeding and phasing out the zoo’s elephant program.

PETA has also submitted a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service saying the zoo should never be granted a permit to import wild baby elephants because it was cited in for being understaffed and unprepared for the birth in 2017 of an elephant calf that died three months later.

“Anyone who cares about animals will be appalled by the Pittsburgh Zoo’s secret bid to tear young elephants away from their loving families,” said Rachel Mathews, PETA Foundation deputy director of captive animal law enforcement. “PETA is calling on the zoo to phase out its failing elephant program before another generation of elephants is sentenced to short, miserable lives.”

In response to a request for comment and an interview with Dr. Baker, the Pittsburgh Zoo issued a one sentence statement saying, “The Zoo did not and does not have a permit to import elephants.”

The Pittsburgh Zoo’s elephant export effort began to fall apart in June, when the Conservation Center decided against importing elephants and removed itself from the application. The Kansas City, Memphis and Maryland zoos dropped out in August.

Also in August, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — CITES for short — adopted a new policy tightening export restrictions for elephants in Zimbabwe and Botswana. It states the animals should not be sent to zoos and must stay in their natural ranges in Africa except under “exceptional circumstances.”

The Pittsburgh Zoo withdrew its application sometime after Dec. 4, 2019, the date of a five-page USFWS memorandum that addressed various issues with the application, including the likelihood that, “Specific animal welfare groups would likely oppose the import of any live elephants regardless of their destination.”

Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and former head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the largest accreditation organization for zoos wasn’t on board with the proposed elephant export.

“After consulting with the AZA our member zoos voluntarily withdrew from the application based on concerns about the source of the elephants and the record of Zimbabwe in previous capture and sale of elephants to unaccredited institutions,” Mr. Ashe said in a phone interview Thursday.

“Our advice was that exports from Zimbabwe at that time, given its record, are unsupportable. Our member zoos agreed and withdrew.” They are Maryland, Memphis and Kansas City.

The Pittsburgh Zoo pulled out of the AZA in 2015 after the zoo refused to adopt the organization’s new safety rules requiring protected contact for elephant handlers.

Mr. Ashe said the CITES elephant export rule change had “no direct effect” on the zoos’ decisions to drop out of the Pittsburgh Zoo’s elephant export plan. And the policy shouldn’t unduly restrict efforts to diversify the genetics of elephants in the nation’s zoos.

“Imports of elephants were never a major source of elephants in our institutions, and the CITES policy restricts but does not prohibit such animal exports, so I don’t see it as a significant barrier in the future,” Mr. Ashe said. “The way to sustainability for zoo elephants is through improvements in breeding success and dealing with health and disease issues. And that success will also help wild elephants.”

There are approximately 350,000 wild elephants in Africa, 65% less than there were in 2002, according to the Great Elephant Census of 2016, a three-year study funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Most of the decline is attributed to ivory poaching, although habitat loss also played a role.

Mr. Ashe said no AZA member zoos, including the 62 that already have elephant exhibits, have pending elephant export applications with the USFWS.

According to the USFWS, the removal of live elephants from Zimbabwe requires an export permit from CITES, which sets international rules for trade of plants and animals.

The Wildlife Service’s role is to determine if zoos and other facilities are adequately equipped to handle the elephants.

Elephants are among the most popular attractions at zoos, but they’re also among the most expensive and controversial.

“We certainly wouldn’t support taking elephants out of the wild to be put into captivity,” said Natalie Ahwesh, vice president of Humane Action Pittsburgh, a local animal advocacy group.

Twenty-two zoos have shut down their elephant exhibits since the 1990s. The high costs of caring for elephant herds and habitats forced many of the closings, but ethical considerations also played a role at zoos in Detroit, the Bronx and Seattle.

But Mr. Ashe said zoos attracted more than 200 million visitors last year and at 62 AZA member facilities the approximately 300 grey, big-eared, charismatic megafauna are major attractions.

“The idea that elephants don’t do well in captivity is wrong and unsupportable,” he said. “Elephants in AZA member institutions are thriving by any standard of animal health and there are lots of examples, from San Diego to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I understand that some people believe that animals should not be in zoos, but that’s an extreme minority and a radical view.”

Mr. Ashe said the high cost of caring for elephants, and meeting higher safety standards for protected contact has forced some zoos to make hard choices. He said the National Zoo has invested in elephants, but no longer exhibits giraffes or hippopotamuses.


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