The possible sale of 11 "orphan" elephants from Swaziland's Hlane Royal Game Reserve to US zoos has led to a threat of a tourism boycott by a leading US animal rights group.
Ted Reilly, the executive director of Big Game Parks of Swaziland, and the country's foremost animal welfare activist, is an unlikely opponent of the US-based People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Reilly carved the country's first game park out of his family's farm in the 1960s. This was followed by two other animal reserves, including Hlane, where King Mswati III hosts a traditional hunt for visiting African monarchs and his warrior regiments.
Big Game Parks of Swaziland, which receives no government financial support, reintroduced elephants to the country in the 1980s, 40 years after they had been hunted to extinction. The elephant population has grown, and now threatens the habitats of other park animals. Indigenous flora are also in peril. Especially endangered are the nests of rare breeding raptors like eagles and owls, of which Hlane has the highest concentration in Southern Africa.
The park requires US $300,000 to extend electrical fencing to permit the elephant population to roam more extensively. Until the funds are raised, culling is the only answer to the survival of other species. A sale to an appropriate animal facility would allow the elephants to live, and bring in needed revenue to ensure future culling might be unnecessary.
PETA has not offered to pay for fencing, but has proposed a potentially more costly relocation exercise to another facility. In an interview with IRIN, Jane Garrison, an elephant specialist with PETA, suggested that the Royal Zulu Biosphere in South Africa would accept Swaziland's elephant excess.
But South African law prohibits the importation of "orphan" elephants, and allows only whole elephant families. The Hlane elephants selected for culling are all "orphans".
"PETA is adamant against stealing animals from their natural homes and cramming them in zoo cages, but especially when it comes to the San Diego Zoo and the Lowry Park Zoo, which are the zoos that want to cage Swaziland's young elephants," said Garrison. PETA, with a worldwide membership not much less than Swaziland's population, has backed that position with the threat of a tourism boycott against scenic but poor Swaziland.
Reilly's son, parks operations director Mickey Reilly, has travelled to the United States to investigate PETA's charges against the Lowry Park and San Diego zoos. Several American, Swazi and international agencies must approve the elephant sales before a decision can be made to go forward.
Swaziland's animal conservationists complain about PETA's aggressive tactics, particularly its threat of a tourism boycott that would devastate the country's economy. The government has targeted tourism as a means for sustainable development that would provide jobs by allowing Swazis to showcase the kingdom's culture and animal menagerie.
"They rushed to the press with threats of a tourist boycott without even speaking to us, and their tone is that we are ignorant incompetents who are insensitive to animal welfare and incapable of handling our own affairs," said Themba Khumalo, a game ranger.
Traditionalists in the country worry that once PETA learns of Swaziland's customs, they would mount a tourism boycott anyway over objections to cultural practices. "What of the king's royal hunt?" asked Samson Xaba, a member of Mswati's warrior regiments. "We wear the pelts of impala, and leopard skin at the Incwala (the sacred pageant where the national ancestral spirits are petitioned). What if these activists throw animal blood on King Mswati for wearing a sigeja (ox-tail shawl)?"
PETA's Garrison replied that such fears were unfounded. "We appreciate different cultural perspectives. We distinguish between people who wear furs on the subsistence level or for cultural rites and animal abusers in the leather and fur industry. We also do not throw blood or paint on people. We are the group that hands people in fur little cards saying 'Excuse me, I used to be your coat', with pictures of the animals when they were still alive."
Reilly said he welcomed working with PETA toward a common goal of protecting African fauna. But, over the fate of the orphan elephants, "King Mswati will have the final word, and he's been briefed on the need to cull the kingdom's elephant population," he told IRIN.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions