Elephants, Africa
Eighteen elephants from Swaziland will be sent to three American zoosREUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Swaziland plans to relocate 18 elephants to three zoos in the US in exchange for funds that will go towards rhino conservation efforts. Three males and 15 females from the Big Game Parks will move to three destinations: the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.

The animals were scheduled to be culled as part of a plan to make room for rhinos at the Swaziland facilities, the zoos said in a statement. "The zoos are working quickly to bring the elephants out of Swaziland, where historic drought conditions continue to threaten wildlife," the statement said.

However, conservationists have condemned the move, saying a shift from their natural habitat to a zoo will affect the health of the elephants. "Elephants are highly intelligent, sensitive, and social. That they suffer in captivity is beyond serious debate," a letter signed by the protesting activists read. "For the 18 elephants targeted for importation, it is no exaggeration to conclude that they face a sad, uncertain future."

The zoos in turn assured animal welfare groups that every measure was being taken to ensure the mental and physical well-being of the newcomers. "Our zoos are committed to the safe future of these elephants," said Gregg Hudson, president of the Dallas Zoo.

Dennis Pate, president of Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, added: "We are making a lifetime commitment to these elephants and their offspring and are providing a safe home for them."

The protest letter also criticised Swaziland's threat to kill the excess elephants if permits for their transfers were not possible. "For Swaziland to kill elephants it has decided are surplus would be a return to practices now considered outmoded by modern wildlife managers. Sadly, the zoos are leveraging these threats to facilitate import of the elephants to the United States," it stated.