Drought May Force 18 Elephants Out of Africa

As the driest rainy season in 35 years threatens southern Africa, elephants have become a flashpoint

African Elephant
An African elephant wanders Hlane National Park in Swaziland. Now, 18 of the park's elephants may be airlifted to the United States due to drought. Edwin Remsberg/Corbis

Droughts destroy crops, disrupt economies and are linked with famine and political and economic instability. But the silent victims of dry spells are often animals, who see their food and water sources decimated by changes in climate and temperature. A recent dry spell in Swaziland has gotten so bad that it’s threatening the life of 18 elephants, who may be airlifted to zoos in the United States rather than be culled.

The Guardian’s John Vidal reports that the elephants, which live in Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland, have permission to be airlifted to the U.S., but are being held pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by animal welfare groups who are concerned about the effects of moving the animals. The animals are scheduled to be culled as part of a plan that will stop land degradation and open up resources and room for endangered rhinos.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted zoos in Dallas, Wichita and Omaha permission to import the elephants, who are currently being fed using food from outside the park. The move is being protested by Friends of Animals, a non-profit advocacy organization.

In a release about the lawsuit, Friends of Animals says that it is concerned that the removal of the elephants will drastically reduce the number of elephants in Swaziland and claims that the zoos simply need elephants to fill their exhibits—a claim that the zoos deny. Meanwhile, Room for Rhinos, a rhinoceros advocacy group that is supporting the move, says elephants transform their environment by eating trees and have taken a toll on the area’s fragile rhino population.

The kerfuffle over the elephants is the latest development in a drought that threatens to decimate much of southern Africa’s animal population. Vidal reports that the drought, which primarily affects range animals, is creating ideal conditions not just for scavengers and large predators, but for poachers.

Southern Africa’s drought was triggered by the current El Niño event. The weather pattern is causing increased precipitation in places like the United States, but it also tends to dry out regions in lower latitudes. Earlier this month, the United Nations said that the current El Niño event has caused the driest rainfall season in the last 35 years in Africa. It is expected to push tens of thousands of people into poverty and is causing a global food crisis that is particularly marked in countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ethiopia, South Africa and Swaziland.

Given concerns about the number of elephants that remain in Swaziland, why is the United States allowing their import? Tim Van Normen, who heads up the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s permits branch and oversaw the approval, tells National Geographic’s Christina Russo that the approval had to do with the humane transport of the animals, not the impact it would have on Swaziland or the ethics of holding animals in captivity.

Will the elephants ever make it to the United States? That depends on the pending lawsuit. Meanwhile, both elephants and rhinos will silently bear the effects of the weather patterns that have turned their welfare into a lightning rod.