Doped up on the tranquiliser Azaparone 11 glassy-eyed ”baby” elephants stood as still as a life-size frieze on a Lost City hotel wall inside their individual metal shipping crates.
An operation that Swazi nature conservationists said saved the lives of these elephants was carried out in secret at the darkened outskirts of Matsapha airport last week, lest animal rights activists who sought to block the elephants’ ”translocation” to two United States zoos pull-off some last minute obstruction.
”We’re just glad this is over,” said Ted Reilly, director of Big Game Parks of Swaziland.
Reilly looked more melancholy than relieved. Since 1985 he has worked to reintroduce elephants to Swaziland. Indigenous herds were hunted to extinction decades before.
At a transport cost of $250 000 an animal, the elephants took the first direct flight from Swaziland to the US. Even King Mswati III has to change planes in Johannesburg.
The king, who by law is the custodian of all wild game in the kingdom, approved the operation. He did so as only one alternative loomed: a bullet in each young elephant’s head as part of a culling operation.
”The drought has ravished the parks, reducing food. We have an overpopulation of elephants. Other animal species and old-stock trees were threatened. There was no alternative to culling if this sale did not go through,” said Reilly.
In the US People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) threatened to sponsor a tourism boycott to halt the sale of six elephants to the San Diego Wild Animal Park in California and five to the Lowry Park zoo in Tampa, Florida.
”We are fundamentally against removing animals from the wild and into captivity,” said Peta elephant specialist Jane Garrison.
The final obstacle to translocation was removed when a US district court turned down an application from animal activists who sought to stop the US Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing a permit for the Swazi elephants’ importation.
A sense of sadness pervaded the operation. None of the game rangers or park managers was happy about moving the elephants into captivity — the same animals were imported from South Africa just eight years ago.
Some of the R750 000 the parks made from the elephant sale is earmarked for a R2,98-million electrified fence to extend the Swazi elephant herd’s roaming area.
Other parks in Africa are watching the Swazi translocation closely. South Africa’s Kruger National Park has the capacity to maintain 7 000 elephants, but now has a herd of 11 000. Botswana also has a proliferating elephant population that is threatening environmental harm.
Culling is a public relations nightmare for game parks, a seeming contradiction for institutions dedicated to the preservation of African wildlife.
But Swaziland was lucky to avoid bloodshed and find a way for its elephants to survive, albeit away from the stubby acacia trees and dusty environs of the kingdom’s flat eastern lowveld. However, the translocation of 11 animals would not dent the elephant population problem of South Africa, Botswana or other nations in the region.