for National Geographic News
Two hours west of Bangkok, Thailand, on the Kanchanaburi campus of Mahidol University, eight Asian elephants are waiting.
For nearly a year the group of pachyderms has been packed and ready to begin a new life in Australia.
The Australian government has approved their importation, effectively giving them visas to enter the country and set up home in custom-made quarters at Sydney's Taronga Zoo and the Melbourne Zoo.
But a coalition of animal welfare groups argues there is no conservation benefit in moving the elephants to Australia. This week the groups will challenge the government's decision in court.
The groups say that local zoos have no record in breeding elephants. They also charge that if the zoos were concerned with the animals' welfare, they would contribute the tens of millions of Australian dollars being spent on their enclosures directly to conservation programs.
Elephants' Day in Court
News of the eight elephants moving to Australia became controversial almost as soon as it was announced in March 2004.
Protests by animal welfare groups were eventually dismissed by the federal government, which approved the elephants' importation in July on the grounds that establishing a regional breeding program would help conserve the threatened species.
But the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Humane Society International, and the Australian branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) is challenging that decision.
The groups say the zoos will not be able to adequately care for the elephants. The president of the RSPCA, Hugh Wirth, says breeding rates of elephants are higher in their native countries, and an Australian breeding program is likely to be unsuccessful.
No Australian zoo has ever successfully bred an Asian elephant.
"This plan is simply a case of admitting they have failed to breed their existing elephants and getting some new ones so they can keep trying," Wirth said.
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