Now, Big Game Parks is again looking to send elephants to U.S. zoos. So, though these zoos seeking to import elephants from Swaziland today claim to be creating naturalistic matriarchal herds as found in the wild, in reality, the common practice among zoos has been to shift animals around, breaking up families who, in nature, would remain together for life.
Keith Lindsay, a conservation biologist with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, warned, in a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003, that the shipment would set a dangerous precedent for the Swazi parks and other small reserves to "become production farms for the international zoo market."
Conservationists now fear Lindsay's prediction is coming true. "Are we going to allow this to happen in perpetuity?" Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, told The Dodo. "Is Swaziland no more than a breeding center for American zoos?"
How things used to be
Fifty years ago, there were few wild animals in Swaziland, and no elephants at all. The lions, zebras, wildebeest, impala and nearly everything else had been shot and poisoned by the thousands by white settlers - game hunters and cattle farmers who wanted to clear the land for their own herds and considered the native fauna to be pests.
In the early 1960s, a young Anglo-Swazi named Ted Reilly transformed his family's 1,100-acre farm into a wild animal reserve, transporting animals - including zebra, kudu, impala and waterbuck - from neighboring South Africa and Zimbabwe. Before long, Reilly was managing three reserves - his original farm, the Hlane Royal National Park and the Mkhaya Game Reserve. The three reserves are still managed, under a mandate from Swaziland's King Mswati III, by Ted Reilly and his son.
Swaziland's elephants were brought in from South Africa's Kruger National Park, the orphaned survivors of a series of culls in the 1980s and 90s. Today those orphaned elephants and their descendants are kept in separate enclosures within the Hlane and Mkhaya parks, surrounded by strong electric fences. And that, conservationists say, is the beginning of the trouble.
"You get problems with elephants if you enclose them in too small a space," Frank Pope, chief operations officer of Save the Elephants, told The Dodo. "They get too constrained and they do cause a lot of damage."
Swaziland is a small country - smaller than Massachusetts. The Hlane and Mkhaya parks cover roughly 54 square miles and 25 square miles, which is also small by the standards of African conservancies; Kruger National Park is bigger than the whole of Swaziland. And the elephant enclosures occupy just a fraction of that - just 6 percent and 19 percent, respectively, of the total reserves.
So "when Swaziland says there are too many elephants," Pope suggests, "it's likely the case that it's too small an area." Better conservation practices, Pope points out, call for larger spaces: opening corridors to connect elephant ranges, rather than fencing them in to confined safari parks.
Lindsay, who has more than 30 years of experience in elephant conservation, says that even given Swaziland's limited space, it's disingenuous for the Big Game Parks to claim elephants are endangering rhinos and vultures.
"The dishonest thing about all this," Lindsay told The Dodo, "is that elephants are not affecting most of the parks." The vultures - which nest in the canopies of mature trees - may be finding fewer nesting spots in the elephant areas. But there is no shortage of thriving mature trees on the other side of the elephant fences. And vultures, after all, can fly.