Hundreds of people and several animal rights groups have concerns about the Omaha zoo’s planned elephant import.

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and partner zoos in Dallas and Wichita, Kansas, filed for a permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import a total of 18 elephants from Big Game Parks in Swaziland, a small country in southern Africa. That permit application was open for public comment until late last month.

More than 8,000 comments were submitted. While many included support from fellow zoos, individuals and other groups, there also were plenty of people with reservations.

Those concerned with the import have questioned its merit as a rescue, wondered what alternatives were explored and pondered the psychological and physical well-being of the elephants in captivity.

The wildlife service is still processing the permit application. It is taking into account the concerns in determining the legality of the import. In 2003, the service granted a similar permit for zoos in San Diego and Tampa to import 11 elephants from the same park.

The World-Herald compiled some of the most common questions and asked the zoo for answers. Dennis Pate, CEO and executive director of Omaha’s zoo, addressed those questions in an email last week.

Question: Why did the zoos have to go all the way to Africa to get elephants? Could the zoo have acquired elephants from elsewhere, perhaps other zoos?

Pate: In the early stages of the process, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and our partners did look at zoos in North America and Europe, as well as the private sector and Africa. They communicated with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Species Survival Plan for African elephants before pursuing other sources.

In the past, many zoos only kept females in small groups without males, and reproduction suffered. However, in the last 10 years, several zoos have made a huge commitment to exhibiting elephants in social groups, and we are beginning to see more births. The importation of additional breeding-age females and males is necessary to improve the sustainability of elephants in North America.

Q: What other options were explored to keep these animals in Africa or move them elsewhere? Why weren’t those alternatives feasible?

A: Relocating Swaziland’s elephants to another location in Africa is unrealistic due to an increasing risk of poaching, human-animal conflict and the lack of habitat that is secure from these perils. On average, 96 elephants per day are targeted and poached for their ivory tusks.

Q: Could anything be changed to allow Big Game Parks to accommodate the elephants?

A: The Swaziland elephant population is negatively affecting the land and natural resources inside its fenced parks. Elephants transform their environment, destroying trees, eating their way across grassy plains and changing woodland areas into barren landscapes. With large appetites for vegetation and the power to easily take out trees and shrubs, the elephants are consuming the parks’ tree and plant life faster than it can naturally regenerate. This has devastating impacts on the landscape and other wildlife species that depend on it.

Q: Did Big Game Parks try any birth-control methods to control the elephant population?

A: All breeding-age male elephants were vasectomized several years ago to help manage the population in concert with the land available to support them.

Q: Several animal rights groups argue that this import is a transaction for commercial gain, which would be illegal. Is this a commercial transaction? If not, why not?

A: All three zoos (Omaha, Dallas and Wichita) are nonprofit. All money earned from admissions, memberships, restaurants and gift shops are put back into their institutions to support conservation, camps, schools, care of the animals and facilities they live in. Money transferred to Swaziland is for the benefit of conserving rhinos.

The zoos are providing funding to support rhino conservation directly to the privately managed, nonprofit wildlife park. Funds are sent to a trust that produces an annual accounting of how the funds are spent. Additional dollars are released once the zoos are satisfied that the funds are directly supporting conservation in the Big Game Parks — especially highly endangered rhinos.

Q: Elephants are social animals. How do you ensure that you don’t psychologically damage these animals — or at least minimize that harm when you divide the herd up?

A: The elephants in zoos are managed as a herd, keeping family units together. (Omaha’s) indoor space is the largest in North America and has an enrichment wall with 32 timed treat cubbies, 12 hay baskets (that) will drop from the ceiling (when) triggered by a timer, and zoo staff will conduct training programs in support of our veterinarians who manage their health. Outdoors includes a 150,000-gallon pool, shade structures, behavioral training demonstrations, terrain changes, a mud wallow, five timed hay feeders and seven overhead timed hay baskets to promote their physical, psychological and social well-being.

Q: How does Omaha’s new elephant exhibit address health and well-being concerns about past exhibits in American zoos?

A: The results from the most complete welfare study on elephants in zoos were used as well as site visits to zoos in the U.S., Europe and Australia to study the most advanced designs to promote the welfare of elephants. Our architects for this project have designed more elephant exhibits than anyone in the nation and brought the latest design principles with them. ... Foot and joint health will be improved by the 4-foot sand floor in our elephant family quarters and a mix of sand and soil in all outdoor spaces.

Q: Studies show that elephants have a shorter lifespan in captivity. What measures does the zoo plan on taking to change that?

A: Great improvements have been made in elephant husbandry in the last two decades. Diet, soft substrates, larger, more enriching environments inside and out, better veterinary care and more typical social groupings all point to longer lives in zoos. ... There are several examples of zoo elephants exceeding the average life expectancy of their wild counterparts.

Q: How would this import impact the overall health of the species?

A: In addition to saving the lives of these 18 animals, all three zoos provide funding for elephant projects in the wild. Omaha is currently partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society to protect elephants in Nigeria and has committed resources to 13 projects in seven countries. Healthy, reproducing elephants in Omaha will help teach our guests and future generations about elephant conservation and create a lifelong emotional attachment that will help us support elephants in the wild.

In North America, population projections show that the sustainability of elephants will improve with this importation.

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