Their trunks are packed. Elephants are coming back to Omaha.

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and its partner zoos in Dallas and Wichita received permits this week to import 18 elephants from southern Africa. If everything goes smoothly, barring health problems with any of the elephants and a legal challenge from animal-rights groups, the zoo could have elephants on display as early as April.

Dennis Pate, CEO and executive director of the zoo, said it will take three or four weeks to coordinate the transport, but the elephants should still arrive within the next two or three months. Then, they’ll acclimate to their new exhibit for a few weeks before going on display. Hopefully, Pate said, that will be well before the entire first phase of the African Grasslands exhibit opens for Memorial Day weekend.

In order to transport the animals, the elephants will have to be loaded into crates, which will then be lifted onto a truck. Pate said equipment will have to be brought into Swaziland to make that happen. Once loaded onto the truck, the elephants will travel to an airport an hour away and fly to the U.S. on a Boeing 747 freighter, stopping only for fuel.

Once they arrive at Eppley Airfield, the last stop, the zoo’s elephants will be loaded onto three trucks and driven directly into their new home, the 29,000-square-foot elephant family quarters — the largest herd room in North America.

There’s a chance that all 18 elephants may not board the plane, however. A team of veterinarians will evaluate the elephants, who have been living in enclosures called bomas, separate from the rest of the park. If some elephants are not healthy, Pate said, the zoos won’t take them.

So Omaha may not get all six of its elephants. But if some stay behind, Pate said, they’ll try to balance the number each zoo receives.

“It’s an even split, in an ideal world,” Pate said.

Getting to this point has taken patience.

The zoos filed an application with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2014. One year later, the application was opened for public comment. The wildlife service has spent the past two months reading through and considering the 8,000 public comments.

The wildlife service published a document Friday morning stating, essentially, that it sees no legal reason not to issue a permit. Later Friday, both Timothy Van Norman, who issued the permit, and Pate confirmed that the permit had been issued on Thursday.

The permit allows the zoos to acquire the elephants for free from Big Game Parks, an independent nonprofit that manages several wildlife parks in Swaziland. The park was planning to kill the elephants as a population control measure because the growing elephant herd was degrading the park’s food supply and endangering other animals.

As part of the partnership, the three zoos will send money, estimated to be about $450,000 over several years, to Big Game Parks for black rhino conservation. That money will be managed in a trust that requires the zoos to sign off on progress updates before releasing more money.

“Lots of good things come out of this,” Pate said. “No. 1, you save elephants from being culled in Swaziland. No. 2, we get to help rhinos at the same time. And No. 3, we strengthen the genetic pool of elephants in North America and make them more sustainable.

“Of course, the fourth thing is that people in Omaha get to see live elephants, be inspired by them and hopefully take action because they’re here.”

The money exchanged between the zoos and Big Game Parks has become a point of contention, however. Animal-rights groups argue that this exchange of money is a commercial transaction, which is illegal.

“(The zoos) intend to use the elephants for breeding programs to repopulate a dwindling inventory of captive elephants and boost ticket sales with the birth of baby elephants,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, in a statement. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which governs endangered animal trade, commercial transactions of endangered animals are forbidden.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the zoos, maintain that the import is legal on the grounds that it is being done for conservation purposes and that there isn’t a price tag for the elephants.

“We’re not buying the elephants,” Pate said. “What we are doing is transferring money to Swaziland that’s placed in a trust to support rhino conservation.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups have tried to delay, alter or cancel the import since plans were first announced. PETA said it does not plan to take legal action, but the Animal Legal Defense Fund said that isn’t off the table for its group.

“This is sending a really dangerous signal to other African countries that there is money to be made by sending elephants to American zoos,” said Rachel Mathews, PETA Foundation counsel.

This import is very similar to one from the same African parks in 2003 that sent 11 elephants to zoos in San Diego and Tampa. Animal rights groups sued the zoos in 2003, alleging false information on the zoos’ permit application, according to the Los Angeles Times. The zoos prevailed, but the import was delayed several months.

If groups choose to sue this time around, the exhibit’s opening may be forced to delay. As of Friday afternoon, Pate had not heard anything about a pending lawsuit.

“I know this is the right thing, and I know we’ve got to have thick skin on a lot of this stuff,” Pate said. “Given San Diego and Tampa’s success breeding them, I know that we can take good care of them.”

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

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