Revisions to the Endangered Species Act’s Section 4(d) Rule for the African Elephant

Mar 21, 2023 | Commentary, Documents, Petitions

Dr. Mary Cogliano

Manager, Branch of Permits, Division of Management Authority

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Via online submission, Docket No. FWS-HQ-IA-2021-0099

Dear Dr. Cogliano

We are biologists and experts in the in situ research and conservation of African elephants, natural resource management, and international conservation and wildlife trade policy. In light of our professional experience, we submit the following comments on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) proposed revisions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 4(d) rule for the African elephant in relation to trade in live animals.

We unreservedly oppose the import of live elephants from anywhere in the continent of Africa for any purposes to US zoos or other captive destinations; simple rule changes governing the conditions of captivity will not suffice. As agreed by CITES Conferences of Parties and the IUCN-SSC African Elephant Specialist Group, there is no justification for such captive keeping on the grounds of in situ conservation. It is unquestionably antithetical to the welfare of the animals involved and any offspring they may produce in captivity. And it is detrimental to wild populations to remove individuals or fragments of family networks from their social context and ecological role.  

The clear lack of any justification for live elephant imports is specifically recognised by the IUCN-SSC African Elephant Specialist Group, of which some of us are members, and – following a thorough consultation of its members in 1998 and 2003 –  it stated (AfESG 2003). “Believing there to be no direct benefit for in situ conservation of African elephants, the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission does not endorse the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use“. This position was reaffirmed at the recent meeting of the Specialist Group in 2019.

The history of today’s zoos and other elephant collections is rooted in colonial imperialism, with the attendant removals of cultural artifacts and biological specimens by European explorers and rulers/administrations from tropical countries to collections in home nations. Such confiscated collections may have served the interests of scholars, including zoological societies and associated academic establishments, but increasingly supplied the public entertainment industry, including both public and private sector organisations. Exports became commercialised, with the involvement of exotic animal traders, an industry that continues operating to this day in Europe, North and South America and, increasingly Asia and the Middle East.

A trend towards a vision of the in situ conservation of threatened species has been grafted onto the original guiding principles of zoos only relatively recently. A small proportion of the zoo industry members has taken this mission to heart, while retaining the public entertainment function, but the latter remains the primary activity of zoos and animal attractions. At the same time, a number of the zoological societies that were strongly linked to animal collections in the early days have become independent conservation NGOs in their own right, with separate, distinct fund-raising systems and in situ research and conservation programmes that have no need for direct connection to the animal exhibits, apart from a nostalgic, historical association. The zoos and collections themselves remain focussed on keeping animals in the captive environment, despite the partial broadening of vision by some members of the industry.

Given their history, zoos are not designed for conservation, in infrastructure or mindset, and despite some efforts to create a conservation role, they have not changed substantively. Captivity that is intended primarily for conservation, in line with the IUCN Ex Situ Guidelines, would look and be managed much differently. It would target endangered species and seek to provide a short-term safety net through maintenance of genetic integrity and prompt reintroduction to the wild. Instead, zoos remain focused on keeping and breeding animals for public viewing by paying customers. Their technical staff are dominated by veterinarians, whose approach to physical and behavioural problems is to treat symptoms, with few if any behavioural ecologists who would understand wild behaviour of all types – including complex sociality, foraging and ranging. The knowledge required for species’ conservation needs has been established through in situ, rather than ex situ,research; the latter has been useful almost exclusively for dealing with the problems posed by captivity.

These shortcomings are particularly evident for large, long-lived social species like elephants. There are no serious prospects for reintroduction to the wild of elephants that have been taken into captivity. An elephant enclosure in a zoo – regularly requiring tens of millions of US dollars of capital expenditure and tens of thousands in recurrent costs – is still orders of magnitude smaller and barren compared to a biodiverse home range in the wild. If these levels of funding – instead of the modest contributions by zoos – were instead invested in sustainable financing mechanisms for in situ conservation efforts, many more animals could be protected, along with their ecosystems and the numerous other species therein.

Rather than promoting conservation, zoos act in the opposite direction. They do not bring people close to nature and ecologically complex environments; instead, they extract animals out of their natural ecosystems and bring them to the people in simple, accessible and totally artificial display areas. There is no reliable evidence that zoo visitors retain knowledge of the wild species they observe, nor that their experience translates into support for conservation. The message that is transmitted is that removing wild animals from nature and confining them is acceptable.

There is most definitely not a continuum across ex situ to in situ conditions; the necessarily hygienic yet barren zoo conditions are fundamentally different from wild nature, even when the latter is substantially altered by human pressures. Whereas elephants in their natural forest and savanna habitats are allies in the fight against climate change, enhancing their ecosystems’ ability to sequester and store carbon, once in a zoo they are essentially unemployed. Moreover, zoos are a source of greenhouse gas emissions through their energy use for heating and lighting structures, transporting food in and waste out, and water purification, and the carbon footprint of their manufactured concrete and steel buildings. We need all the functioning ecosystems we can get these days, so the zoo concept of displaying selected components of ecosystems as a day out for the kids is not only bad for the animals, it reduces our chance of halting the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

There has been a significant increase in the capture from the wild for international trade in African elephants to many destinations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and, not least, the United States. Capturing elephants for captive display runs counter to the ESA’s conservation mandate. For all the reasons we have outlined, we maintain that the proposed rule changes by USFWS are misguided and insufficient.

We recommend, in no uncertain terms, that the USFWS avoid issuance of special purposes permits that would allow any commercial activity involving live elephants. There are no acceptable standards that would ensure that zoo and elephant collection facilities are “suitably equipped” to hold these cognitively and socially complex animals. The FWS should instead strengthen the proposed Rule by prohibiting completely the import of live elephants.

Yours sincerely

Patricia Awori: Director, Pan-African Conservation Alliance; Secretariat, African Elephant Coalitiion

Dr Hédia Baccar: Former Director at Cabinet Ministry of Environment, Tunisia; CITES Advisor for Middle East & North Africa (MENA)/ Francophone Africa

Arfou Saley Baouna: Inspector of Water and Forests, Conservator of the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de Kandadji (RNNK) Tillaberi-Niger, Directorate of Wildlife, Hunting, Parks and Reserves of the Republic of Niger

Dr Lucy Bates: Lecturer, Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology, University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom

Dr Richard Byrne: Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, UK

Council of Elders of the African Elephant Coalition:

  • Honorable Azizou El Hadji Issa, Chairman (Bénin)
  • Bourama Niagate, Member (Mali)
  • Fidelis O. Marcellin Agnagna, Member (Republic of Congo)

Dr Harvey Croze: Co-Founder, Amboseli Elephant Research Project, Kenya; Senior Science Advisor, Friends of Karura Forest, Kenya

Dr Audrey Delsink: Wildlife Director, Humane Society International – Africa

Dr Andrew P Dobson: Professor, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, USA

Annabella Francescon: Co-Founder and Chairperson, Luigi Footprints Foundation (elephant conservation), Kenya

Dr Marion Garai: Trustee, Elephant Reintegration Trust, South Africa; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and its In-situ/Ex-situ Task Force

Dr Deborah Gibson: DG Ecological Consulting, Namibia; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and its In-situ/Ex-situ Task Force

Dr. Kathleen S. Gobush: Affiliate Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, University of Washington, USA; IUCN Red List Lead Assessor & Coordinator for African Elephants; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group

Petter K Granli: CEO and Co-Founder, ElephantVoices, Norway & Kenya

Dr Festus Ihwagi: Senior Scientist, Save the Elephants, Kenya; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group

Nana Koulibaly: National Focal Point for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Guinea

Ulysse Korogone: National Focal Point for CITES, Bénin

Dr Phyllis C Lee: Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of Stirling, UK; Chair, Scientific Committee, Amboseli Trust for Elephants; Member, IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group

Dr W Keith Lindsay: Consultant Conservation Biologist, Natural Resource Management: Member, University of Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and its In-situ/Ex-situ Task Force

Brett Mitchell: Chairman, Elephant Reintegration Trust, South Africa

Cynthia J Moss: Director & Founder, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Dr Joyce H Poole: Scientific Director and Co-Founder, ElephantVoices; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and its In-situ/Ex-situ Task Force

Ian Redmond, OBE: Ambassador for the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species; Head of Conservation, Ecoflix; Co-founder, http://www.Rebalance.Earth

Dr Rosalind Reeve: Senior Advisor and CITES Project Director, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation; Member, IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law

Samaila Sahailou: Engineer of Water and Forests, Wildlife and Protected Areas; Wildlife and Protected Areas Planner; National Director of Wildlife, Game, Parks and Reserves of the Republic of Niger.

Dr Lydia N Tiller: Coexistence and Connectivity Specialist, Amboseli Trust for Elephants; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and its In-situ/Ex-situ Task Force

Antoinette van de Water: Director & Founder, Bring The Elephant Home; Board member, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group of South Africa

Dr Hilde Vanleeuwe: Wildlife Conservation Society Elephant Project Coordinator and Research Associate; Member, IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and its In-situ/Ex-situ Task Force

Dieudonné Yameogo: Director of Wildlife and Game Resources, Burkina Faso; National Focal Point, CITES