After overcoming a legal hurdle on Tuesday and months of paperwork and planning, 17 African elephants arrived in the U.S. on Friday.
Five of those elephants arrived at the Dallas Zoo by mid-morning. The other 12 will be split evenly between Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo.
The Dallas Zoo called it a life-saving rescue mission.
In September it was announced the zoos were working to bring 18 elephants from Swaziland, in southern Africa, to the United States. After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife issued a permit, under federal rules and international treaties, a suit was filed to block the permit and the animals' arrival. However, a judge refused to issue an injunction in the case and the animals were brought to the U.S.
One of the 18 elephants died back in December due to health complications. The other 17 arrived shortly before 1 a.m. at Fort Worth's Alliance Airport. The cargo plane carrying them, a special 747, then took the remaining 12 to their destinations later on Friday.
The elephants spent several hours in customs at Alliance, where the animals were examined by the United States Department of Agriculture, Customs and other federal agencies, the zoo said. The five staying in Dallas were then transported by ground, with a police escort, to a quarantine facility at the zoo. The animals will be quarantined for 30 days, which is standard for any animals imported in the U.S.
The journey took 25 hours or so of flight time, starting in Swaziland, with a stop in Senegal before arriving in Texas.
Once at the Dallas Zoo, the five elephants were allowed to take their time leaving the travel crates and enter their new, temporary home.
"The animals are looking great, they're very clam, eating and drinking," said Gregg Hudson, the zoo's CEO and president.
Hudson says it took lots of logistical work by the teams at the three zoos and in Swaziland to pull off this transfer. The most elephants the zoo had brought in before was two. Hudson says this transfer mirrors a similar one made from Swaziland years ago to San Diego.
"They're comfortable in the situation we brought them over in," Hudson said. "They're taking their time getting out of that (crate). Wish they would have hurried a little early, like I said, we're letting them go in on elephant time. We're really pleased with the condition they're in."
However, the groups that opposed the elephants' U.S. move aren't thrilled.
In a letter to sent to a regional USDA official the group Animal Protection Coalition, which consists of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), PETA, Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), demanded a thorough inspection of the animals.
"Given that these animals have been sedated and subjected to a journey that will ultimately be several days long in duration, it is critical that the USDA stands ready to inspect and monitor the arrival of these elephants to better ensure compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA)," the letter said.
Hudson said the USDA has been involved throughout the process and was on hand at Alliance when the plane arrived and will remain at the Dallas Zoo as the animals leave their travel crates.
While the groups could still win the lawsuit regarding the permit to bring the animals to the U.S., Hudson doesn't see how they would leave now that they're here and questioned if the group really knows what the elephants are being rescued from.
"I don’t know if they totally understand what the situation is with what’s going on in Swaziland and what we're trying to do here and how fantastic the Giants of the Savannah will be (for the elephants)."
The zoo's current parade of four elephants, affectionately known as the "Golden Girls", were out in their pen all day long. They won't see their new friends from Africa though for quite some time as they adjust to their environments and leave quarantine.
"It's really going to depend on how the elephants are doing. It's up to them," Hudson said.
According to federal documents reviewing the import of the animals to get a permit under international and federal rules, the elephants could possibly be put down for the good of the species and other animals in the game reserve.
"The elephants are currently housed in an enclosure at the Mkhaya Game Reserve, Swaziland. The elephants were removed from Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane National Park, Swaziland, due to overpopulation of elephants within the two protected areas and the negative impact the elephants were having on the vegetation and other wildlife species. Big Game Parks (BPG), the delegated authority responsible for implementation of Swaziland's Game Act of 1953, has determined that the number of elephants in the two protected areas must be reduced. Further, the reduction in the number of elephants within each of the protected areas will facilitate BGP's efforts to increase the population of black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), a critically endangered species, within the two protected areas."
Hudson says the 17 new elephants will be used in the captive breeding program, which will help make that program more sustainable.
The Dallas Zoo says its efforts to get the animal here contained more than 1,100 pages of documents.