Animal advocates around the world are celebrating a victory in the protection of wild elephants — one that could have prevented the Dallas Zoo from importing elephants from Swaziland in 2016.
Nearly 200 delegates from around the world gathered at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in mid-August to discuss protections for endangered species.
Called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, the conference meets every three years to consider the welfare of elephants, giraffes, rhinos, exotic pets, sales of ivory, and other wildlife issues.
The elephant resolution was one of the biggest actions of the 2019 conference. It bans African elephants caught in the wild from being sold and shipped to countries outside of Africa.
Elephants from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa can only be exported to their natural habitat, i.e. other African countries where elephants have lived.
The resolution came close to an outright ban, but the European Union intervened with an amendment that does allow export under "exceptional circumstances," when a country can prove there's a conservation benefit.
In those cases, two outside parties — CITES' elephant experts and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — must approve.
The United States voted against the measure.
According to a New York Times story, at least one U.S. zoo, not identified, has already initiated activity to import elephants, although none have yet applied for a permit. China has been the biggest exporter, acquiring more than 100 elephants, mostly babies, from Zimbabwe since 2012. That will stop.
Unfortunately, countries such as Swaziland (which now goes by Eswatini) that claim its elephants are at risk of extinction could still make a case to export elephants.
But Stephen Hernick, senior attorney of Friends of Animals (FoA), says his group feels confident that elephants' welfare will finally, for the first time, be considered.
Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit to stop the Dallas Zoo and two other zoos — Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha — from importing elephants from Swaziland in 2016.
The three zoos obtained permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import the elephants from a national park in Swaziland overseen by Big Game Parks.
FoA filed a lawsuit stating that Fish & Wildlife had a responsibility under the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate and disclose whether the elephants would suffer "social, psychological, behavioral, and physical impacts" from captivity.
Two weeks before the FoA hearing scheduled for March 17, 2016, the zoos stealthily chartered a plane to transport the elephants to the U.S. Dan Ashe, who was then head of Fish & Wildlife and granted permission to the zoos, is now president and CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the zoos' overseeing body.
Hernick says that, under the new ban, there are three conditions in place that would prevent those circumstances from being duplicated.
"The 'exceptional circumstances' condition could easily be met, but the other two conditions are what make the difference," Hernick says. "The transfer must provide demonstrable in situ conservation benefits for elephants. That's in contrast to the 2016 transport by the Dallas Zoo. There were no in situ benefits for the elephants. The zoos paid $450,000 to Big Game Parks to 'help with rhino conservation' — that would not have met this condition."
Hernick says that zoos could have rationalized the import as being for elephant conservation and met the second condition, but not the third.
"It needs to be done in consultation with CITES' animal committee and African elephant specialist group and the IUCN," he says. "They need to get these groups on board."
"To my mind that's the big difference," he says. "No longer can you have a private transaction between a country and a zoo, with no oversight. There's now oversight from independent bodies, from elephant experts."
Hernick says that for the first time, elephants' welfare will be represented.
"In the past, it's been the country that wants to export them to make money, and the zoo wanting to get the elephants to make money," he says. "There's never been a voice saying, 'Is this really good for the elephants?' That's what you'll have now."