Putting the Spin on Flying Elephants to Omaha

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF Executive Director on November 30, 2015

Legally Brief

Three American zoos have orchestrated a fairly tricky sleight-of-hand to remove 18 African elephants from their native grasslands and plant them in expensive faux-habitat exhibits in the U.S.

The Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, committed to pay a “significant contribution”—$450,000—to Big Game Parks, a family-run organization that manages wildlife for the government of Swaziland in three of that nation’s protected areas. In exchange, each zoo will receive six elephants from Swaziland, transported first via 747, then in shipping crates on the backs of tractor-trailers to the zoos’ complexes in Dallas, Wichita, and Omaha.

The $450,000, however, is not technically a direct payment for taking possession of the elephants. The zoos describe the deal as a “contribution” to Big Game Parks and Swaziland’s black rhinoceros conservation efforts.

According to Big Game Parks, the nation’s protected areas are overcrowded with elephants and, because of this, endangered black rhinos are being pushed closer to extinction. To hear the zoos’ administrators tell it in the press, they “agreed to take ownership” of the elephants, practically as a favor to the elephants and to the poor, drought-ridden nation of Swaziland. In late September, news articles supportive of the importation ran in the largest newspapers in the zoos’ three cities, all touting the “win-win” nature of the transaction for the elephants and the rhinos.


Notably, as of September, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita had raised $10.6 million for construction of a new elephant exhibit, of which half was contributed by the county government. The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha was in the final stages of constructing its $73 million African Grasslands project, including a $15 million elephant building. At that time, the Executive Director and CEO of the Doorly Zoo told the Omaha World-Herald, “When people come to a zoo like ours, they expect to see elephants.” And when for-profit zoos build multi-million dollar compounds, they expect a return on investment.

Swaziland is a poor country. Big Game Parks manages its wildlife with little if any government oversight. The organization has threatened to kill the 18 elephants if permits allowing their exportation are not issued. They do not point out that the entire population of fewer than 35 elephants occupies only small fenced portions of the reserves and poses no considerable threat to other wildlife. No evidence has been presented to show significant habitat competition with rhinos. Nor have they shown that they’ve made any significant efforts to move the elephants to protected areas elsewhere in Africa where they would not be subjected to incarceration or family destruction.

Big Game Parks stands to benefit financially from the transaction, as do the American zoos, but both parties know that the world increasingly sees the purchase and importation of African big game as morally repugnant, even if it’s not out-and-out illegal. Thus, the transaction is shaded as something other than a direct sale.

We know that elephants roam up to thirty miles a day in the wild. Female elephants stay with their families all their lives. They are highly intelligent, communicative, and have complex social structures that are critical to their welfare. We know that in captivity they grow depressed (indicated by abnormal stereotypic behaviors such as head bobbing and swaying) and have diminished life expectancies, although an elephant’s natural lifespan is similar to that of a human.

In zoos and circuses, however, captive elephants are frequently euthanized at an early age due to painful arthritis and other foot problems—conditions that are unique to unnatural and inappropriate captive settings. These zoo executives and their private partners in Swaziland are hoping we’ll forget those things. They’re hoping the people of Kansas will forget, too, and pay $13.95 to see elephants fresh out of Africa right off Interstate 235 in Wichita.

ALDF has joined with dozens of scientists, conservation and animal advocacy organizations to stop this importation, and we hope you will join us and spread the word. The elephants, after all, don’t have the luxury of forgetting.

20 thoughts on “Putting the Spin on Flying Elephants to Omaha

  1. Devin miller says:

    This is outrageous! We stopped circuses! Zoos are next!!

  2. Shelagh Carter says:

    Totally repugnant, immoral and driven by greed for profit. Zoos are outdated institutions and the sooner they fade into history the better. Leave wild animals where they belong – in the wild.there must be better things to spend money on.

  3. Marcella says:

    Thank you for finding out and exposing the truth here. And thank you also for intervening as best as possible and speaking up for these elephants – if these elephants are killed because they could not be exported to the US PLEASE LET US KNOW – that should be publicized EVERYWHERE and we will share all over the Internet!!

  4. Karen Kennedy says:

    Please leave these elephants where they belong, in Swaziland.

  5. Ellyn Taylor says:


  6. Laura Haber says:

    The greed and the rampant abuse must stop. There are stunning aspirations we animal lovers read all the time that are put forward. But we are not the ones to be reading them. The abusers are….

  7. Mirian says:

    It took me 3 months of intensively reading about elephants from books and Facebook pages of groups concerned with elephants’ welfare to understand the corruption and lies being told to the public. This is why it is so hard to reach people who only hear of elephants from the mainstream media.

    That’s why this article is so important to be shared and pushed and pushed and pushed so that people can critically think when they hear something too good to be true such as a “win-win” situation as this.

    This article is clearly written and I will copy it to paste on sites that endorses zoos, rides, rituals and circuses.

  8. PATRICIA T says:

    It is amazing how much MONEY TALKS and care and concern for living beings who need to be in their natural habitat is denied.

  9. Alice mullins says:

    No…no..no…what fries it take yo stop thus ?? Have we learned nothing ? No….

  10. Elephants belong in their own natural habitata, not in captivity.

  11. Rod McCabe says:

    People need to get a clue. Nonhuman animals are not put here for our use & abuse. 1. They weren’t put here, they evolved and, 2. They’re not for our use. And because we can control them with our prods and such doesn’t mean we should. They’re singularly sentient beings and should be left alone and not bred for such foolish endeavors. Humans should see them in the wild and get the entire experience rather than the one afforded by the limited confines of fences or crates. Nonhuman animals are more important than to be our look-e-loos, wearables, or as food.

  12. Marnie Kennedy says:

    i cannot believe it

  13. BARRY WARREN says:

    Time to wake up and stop the madness that is this blatant disregard for the animals right to live out their lives in freedom and in their natural habitat. Zoos are not that…never were…never will be..

  14. Renee Nesper says:

    No!!! This must be prevented. What can we do to help you prevent this atrocity from being realized?

  15. robert dowling says:

    elephants roam and socialize with others, zoos limit both. plus to take from their homeland is anti nature, the excuses for this most of the time are a fabrication to justify what is being done. leave them alone or expend the $ and effort to put forth help where they are now.

  16. Marjory Kephart says:

    The elephants should be taken out of Swaziland and put in a reserve somewhere else in Africa. I mentioned Botswana or Kenya. Zoos are grotesque and out of date. The enclosures are too small. Zoos should be turned into learning centers for children and adults where they learn about wildlife and plant life in their region and in different parts of the world. And, learn about conservation. Go to Africa and watch them interacting with their families and roaming freely in nature.

  17. Angela Rae says:

    Who are these people that “expect to see elephants” at zoos? Let’s find them and explain their ticket purchase directly funds the extreme abuse and life-long suffering of elephants ripped from the wild and held captive in fake environments just so these uniformed people can “see” elephants. Sickening. Leave those elephants in AFrica where they belong. Boycott all zoos until they perish!

  18. Darci Michaels says:

    I agree with many of the good points mentioned above. The sneaky way these zoos have made this deal to look like they are doing the Elephants and Black Rhinos a favour is nothing short of selfish and disgusting. What a cruel thing to do to such a magnificent animal and then to top it off and say that people want to see them at the zoos. Really?? Take them out of their natural environments so you can have look at them as they suffer and slowly decline in health and well-being as they spend the rest of their(shortened) life languishing instead of flourishing. I am very shocked that this is actually happening. Some people never learn.

  19. Gina says:

    With ongoing pressure to release already- captive elephants in American zoo’s, how on Earth do the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska justify bringing over new elephants to this country?? Zoo’s are prisons and all that are captive there are innocent and don’t deserve a life sentence in isolation just to amuse humans.

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