Elephants are likely to arrive in Omaha today, but the number of them on their way from Africa is one fewer than expected.

One of the 18 elephants that were scheduled to travel from Swaziland to three American zoos died in December.

Thursday afternoon, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and its partners in Dallas and Wichita said the elephant died from “an acute gastrointestinal medical condition,” which the zoos said was impossible to treat.

In fact, they said, that elephant’s death prompted the zoos to move the animals as soon as they did.

“We knew we needed to act without further delay because the situation in Swaziland is deteriorating,” said Gregg Hudson, president and CEO of the Dallas Zoo.

The zoos in Omaha and Wichita are still expected to receive six elephants each, the statement said. Dallas will now receive just five.

The animals were scheduled to touch down near Dallas shortly after midnight. Depending on how long it takes to unload the animals, refuel and prepare again for takeoff, the elephants destined to become new Omahans could arrive as soon as this morning.

“The elephants are doing well. And we’ve just received word from the veterinarians with them on the flight that they are eating, drinking and some are sleeping,” said Dennis Pate, executive director and CEO of Omaha’s zoo. “We stand ready to welcome them to their new homes.”

Representatives of the zoos sent a plane to Swaziland on Tuesday to carry the elephants from their home at Big Game Parks. Veterinarians sedated the animals, crated them and prepared them for transport.

Then an animal advocacy group, Friends of Animals, asked a judge for an emergency restraining order to block the elephant-import operation. The judge, who’s overseeing a pending suit by Friends of Animals against the zoos and the permit-issuing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ruled in favor of the zoos and said the elephants could fly.

About 36 hours later, a Boeing 747 left Swaziland’s King Mswati III International Airport with the elephants aboard. The plane left Swaziland about noon Thursday (4 a.m. in Omaha), stopping in Senegal before heading for Fort Worth, Texas. They landed in Fort Worth shortly after midnight local time.

The zoos said that, for the safety of the animals, they would not reveal transport details.

“There are a plethora of sensitivities around the movements of elephants, and in the case of the Swazi elephants, a calculated decision was made to follow a discreet and confidential route, for as long as possible, to shorten our exposure to demonstration and demonization by money-hungry activists,” said Ted Reilly, chief executive of Big Game Parks.

Reilly said transporting the elephants is “hugely costly,” estimating the price at “a million U.S. dollars a day.”

On Tuesday, Michael Harris, attorney for Friends of Animals, called the sudden elephant transport underhanded.

“It signifies that the animals are going to spend the next 40 or 50 years in captivity,” he said. “I think we’re going to look back on this someday and say that was the last time we ever did this to elephants.”

In their Thursday statement, the zoos said they coordinated the move with “multiple governmental agencies, all of whom have been kept apprised of plans along the way.”

After the elephants arrive at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, they will enter the 29,000-square-foot Elephant Family Quarters, part of the $73 million African Grasslands exhibit in Omaha, which includes about 4 acres of outdoor space for the elephants.

The three zoos said their exhibits were “informed by the latest scientific findings on elephant welfare ... to meet each elephant’s complex physical, mental and social needs in multigenerational herds.”

The elephants will spend time in quarantine before going on public view. Omaha’s exhibit is expected to open by Memorial Day.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1734, chris.peters@owh.com, twitter.com/_ChrisPeters

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