Asian elephant companions for the Auckland Zoo’s 32-year old female elephant, Burma may soon arrive in New Zealand, a transfer surrounded by much debate and controversy over the most humane and effective long-term solution to her solitary existence. The zoo’s website describes their elephant program as “world-class” recognized for excellence by international elephant management specialist Alan Roocroft. Born Free USA, however, contests this claim citing the zoo for failing to properly look after the welfare of these endangered elephants and calling into question the practical gain to be achieved on behalf of the global conservation efforts by placing two baby Sri Lankan Asian elephants at the zoo with Burma for social companionship.
The zoo lauds their elephant staff as extraordinary in the skill, love and care they have poured into establishing a bond with Burma that has kept the social animal thriving even in the loss of her companion Kashin in 2009. They report that she sleeps well and hikes five to eight miles per day in the zoo’s forested areas. Their account of Mr. Roocroft’s evaluation of her welfare states that she is “well-adjusted and happy” and that the zoo’s elephant program rises to an “impressive standard” when stacked up against similar elephant facilities globally. The zoo’s fact sheet about the possible acquisition of companions for Burma contend that their Asian elephant habitat is up to par in terms of internationally accepted “best practice standards” and is more than adequate to house two more fully grown female elephant cows.
The plan at this time is to transfer two young Asian elephants from the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka to temporary quarantine quarters in the nearby island nation of Niue where they will remain for a few months before moving into permanent quarters at the Auckland Zoo, in New Zealand. This arrangement is not without surrounding controversy, however, as Born Free opposes the transfer plan, citing eyewitness accounts from their representatives who reportedly witnessed Auckland Zoo staff at Pinnawala using chains and a bullhook to control the young elephants.
Born Free accuses the orphanage and the zoo of not making the welfare of the endangered species a priority, calling the export proposal “ill conceived, unsustainable and inhumane.” According to their e-newsletter, urging supporters to take action on behalf of the endangered animals, the move will do little to nothing to help wild Asian elephants while risking the welfare of the three elephants in captivity. The wildlife activist group has written a letter to Niue’s Premier asking him to reevaluate the island nation’s participation in the transfer process.
Auckland Zoo officials claim that 32-year old Burma has thoroughly acclimated to her environment and care after 24 years at their facilities. They feel and report that Mr. Roocroft agrees with their assessment that it will be better for the older Asian elephant to stay in familiar surroundings as leader of a small herd of younger animals than to be transferred to another zoo where she would have to carve out a place for herself in an established herd, a much more difficult and traumatizing prospect. Mr. Roocroft reportedly pronounced the Auckland Zoo as an “ideal” place to house excess Sri Lankan animals.
Born Free acknowledges Burma’s need for social companionship but maintains that keeping her at Auckland Zoo indefinitely is not a reasonable solution. They propose instead that it would be more humane and feasible in the long term to transfer the Asian elephant, who could live for several more decades, to an elephant sanctuary with proper accreditation, where she would be surrounded by proper care to see to her welfare. They urge the public to keep the controversy alive by writing to Auckland city and Niue government officials and Auckland Zoo directors to urge them to abandon the plan of transferring the young Asian elephants to New Zealand.
By Tamara Christine
Born Free USA: Controversial Elephant Export
Born Free USA (e-newsletter)