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Aussie Zoo Hearing Puts Asian Elephants on Hold

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
October 12, 2005
 
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.

"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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