Aussie Zoo Hearing Puts Asian Elephants on Hold

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"Furthermore, this breeding program will require much closer and more frequent handling of these elephants than previously undertaken in order to conduct the invasive artificial insemination procedures required."

While the RSPCA stresses it is not an animal rights group or opposed to zoos, Wirth is concerned about whether importing the elephants to Australia would deliver a conservation benefit.

"If we continue to take elephants from their home in Asia to put on display in zoos, where we know they don't breed and they suffer greatly, then it's true that the only elephants our children will know will be elephants in a zoo," Wirth said.

The tens of millions of dollars being spent on building enclosures for the elephants would be better spent in the animals' native countries where few funds are available for local conservation efforts, he said.

Zoo Support

With the matter now subject to legal proceedings, the zoos are no longer commenting.

But a spokesperson for Taronga Zoo, Lisa Keen, says a keeper recently returned from Thailand, where the waiting elephants were reported to be in good condition.

"The elephants have learned to live without restraint and enjoy socializing and playing together," Keen said.

"Having been together for a year now, the keepers have bonded closely with the elephants, and we are very hopeful to bring them all home as soon as possible."

The zoos argue the move is necessary because there are only 34,000 Asian elephants left in the wild in 13 countries. Captive herds need to be built up in case the numbers in the wild continue to drop.

Zoo officials say they will support the Kuiburi National Park in Thailand, home to the largest remaining wild elephant group. They will also fund global positioning equipment to monitor the animals in the wild, and will help raise money for elephant conservation programs in other countries.

Meanwhile a cooperative conservation program has been set up that aims to establish a regional herd in Australia to be used for breeding, educating the public, and contributing to conservation projects in the animals' native countries.

In an interview last month with the Sydney Morning Herald, Taronga Zoo's director, Guy Cooper, said he was annoyed at suggestions that Australia must "bring in elephants for commercial reasons."

"We're not going to save wildlife by going round with a begging bowl on their behalf," he said. "We have to prove that something is worth saving and that any investment in [the animal's] conservation is well spent."

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