If the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium hadn’t stepped in, 18 African elephants might have been killed.

The elephants live in Swaziland at one of two government parks with 15 other elephants and some black rhinos, among other animals. The country in southern Africa, about the size of New Jersey, is enduring its worst drought ever, and its Big Game Parks Trust had to make a decision: Cull the elephants or put at risk a black rhino population already on the brink of extinction.

In stepped the zoo. CEO and Executive Director Dennis Pate visited the park in February 2014. He was searching for elephants for the zoo’s new African Grasslands exhibit, but more importantly, he said, he heard the park had a dire situation.

Elephants were stripping 900-year-old trees of their bark. They were munching grass faster than it could grow, and they were leaving parks barren. The black rhinos were running out of food.

“It’s a little bit of a Martian landscape where the elephants have been,” Pate said. “The only greenery that’s left are some of the plants that nobody wants to eat because they taste horrible.”

Six years ago, the Swaziland park gave every elephant bull of birthing age vasectomies to stunt the population’s growth. Recently, they moved the elephants to several-acre holding areas called bomas and started trucking in hay from South Africa and rerouting water from the landlocked country’s fast-drying rivers.

They can’t relocate them anywhere nearby — poaching, habitat loss and elephant-human conflicts are too big a barrier. The next step was a controlled slaughter.

During that trip a year and a half ago, Pate committed to help fix the problem. Omaha’s zoo partnered with the Dallas Zoo and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, to pay a “significant contribution” to the country’s rhinoceros conservation plan.

The three zoos have committed to devote about $1 million to black rhino conservation. This nearly matches the $1.3 million spent between 2010 and 2014 by 24 members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, including the Henry Doorly Zoo.

The zoos also agreed to take ownership of the 18 elephants from the park for no additional fee. Each of the zoos will get six elephants — one male and five females.

The three zoos have filed permit requests with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Swaziland wildlife authorities to bring the elephants to the United States. If approved, the elephants will arrive on a 747 aircraft, landing first in Dallas, then Wichita, then Omaha’s Eppley Airfield. They should arrive in late fall or winter.

The shipping crates containing the animals will then be forklifted onto a truck and transported to the zoo. Once here, they will be driven through 17-foot-wide doors into the new 29,000-square-foot elephant family quarters, which is in the final stages of construction in the zoo’s far southwest corner. The building is the largest of the zoo’s $73 million African Grasslands project, costing about $15 million.

The elephants will spend a few weeks in quarantine before going on display. Pate said he expects that the zoo will allow visitors into the building sometime this winter.

“When people come to a zoo like ours ... they expect to see elephants,” he said. “We want to deliver on that promise, but we also want to deliver on rhino conservation and making sure that these elephants have a safe future.”

In Swaziland, 15 elephants will remain at the parks, which are focusing on restoring the critically endangered black rhino population. One of the parks has four armed guards with poacher-tracking dogs and additional support in watch towers, Pate said. With fewer elephants, they hope the vegetation will be sustainable.

Pate returned to Swaziland this July along with the zoo’s director of animal health, Doug Armstrong. They collected blood samples from elephants for a study the three zoos are doing together, using the group of 18 to better understand the physiology of the wild population. They’re also collecting data for a nationwide study to help determine relatedness to better match breeding partners, Armstrong said.

The bulls at the zoo will be used to breed not only with the zoo’s females, but also with females at the other two partner zoos. The institutions will transport either the male elephants or their semen for breeding.

“At some point, we’re going to have too many elephants, which will be a happy day,” Pate said. The new exhibit can hold as many as eight or nine adult elephants, plus a few calves. Once they reach that point, they’ll move some mothers and their offspring to another zoo.

Pate said he has been searching for elephants since June 2012. And he’s not done looking. He’d like to get as many as the new facility can handle.

He has a few more leads in North America. If the conditions are right, he said, the zoo would likely take the animals on loan from another zoo, with no money changing hands.

“If we still didn’t get any more, I’d still be really happy to have this,” he said. “This will be one of the premier elephant collections in the United States.”

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

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