Relocating wildlife—often, but not always, the best option.

By July 14, 2021Editorial

African elephants at the Aspinall Foundation’s Howletts Wild Animal Park, Kent, England. Michael Haslam/Wikimedia Commons.

Rescuing, rehabilitating, reintroducing, and translocating animals are hugely important aspects of wildlife management worldwide. One only has to think of the late Ian Player’s contribution to the survival of the Southern White Rhino in the 1960s to understand this. “Operation Rhino” re-established White Rhino populations across Africa, and without this extraordinary effort, the species would have declined in numbers, possibly to the point of extinction.

Relocation has also been the backbone of the Indian Rhino’s recovery; while the ongoing Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) spearheaded by WWF in 2003 is another excellent project that has undoubtedly helped to counter the dramatic decrease in the species numbers from poaching, which led to their near extinction in the 1990s.

As conservation strategies, relocations of large mammals are often logistically challenging, undoubtedly stressful for the creatures involved, almost always expensive, and not consistently successful. Sometimes the procedure involves a single animal, or more often, several are moved, and occasionally whole herds are relocated. Frequently such undertakings are controversial and highly emotive events, particularly where iconic species like elephants and rhinos are concerned.

Some would argue that there is no place for emotion in nature conservation, that it’s a distraction from the hard realities of securing functioning ecosystems. “You’re just being emotional” is leveled accusingly at those with animal welfare agendas or, worse still, those who espouse the heresy that animals should have rights. That those, me included, who express deep empathy for animals should be seen as the enemies of solid, rational science-based conservation has always been a puzzle to me. Personally, I have no difficulty appreciating the undoubted value of science as our best tool for knowing how and why things work in the way they do, and the gift of kindness and compassion in helping us decide what we ought to do with that knowledge.

I am comfortable, therefore, in supporting the rescue of a lion rotting away in some hellhole of a zoo and transporting the hapless critter to a faraway sanctuary where it would be able to live out its life in surroundings that show respect for its being. I know that such interventions are expensive and have no conservation value. And I understand those who would argue that the rational thing would simply be to euthanize the poor lion and spend the money on “real” conservation—an anti-poaching initiative, say.

But then there is emotional value in wanting to provide the lion with an opportunity to live out his days in a place approximating the environment denied him during his long, caged years. Take the Born Free initiative at the renowned Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where sanctuary has been given to many big cats rescued from a lifetime of suffering in zoos, circuses, or kept as pets. I was at Shamwari many years back when some of the first lions were released into the sanctuary. One was Brutus, who had been confiscated from a circus in France, where he had been living in a cage barely bigger than himself. I vividly remember his look of astonishment, panic even, as his paws made contact with grass quite probably for the first time in his life. It was deeply emotional and wonderful, notwithstanding there was no conservation value in the rescue and transportation of Brutus and his companions.

As psychologist Zoran Josipovic states: “At a basic level, cultivating kindness toward ourselves and others allows us to find commonality with all life. It ‘opens our hearts’ and helps us to accept the basic existential predicament of our lives that we are all beings facing death.” I concur and would argue that the emotional states of kindness and compassion are spread far too thinly in our dealings with other humans and often lacking altogether when it comes to the other animals with whom we share this planet.

Sometimes compassion and conservation value happily intersect in the rescue and relocation of a single animal. Here I think of our Foundation’s involvement in the life of Munu, a male Black Rhino who was found wandering erratically in the Addo Elephant National Park. He was completely blind, it transpired. Lions, always quick to spot weakness in any animal, were already circling the somewhat defenseless rhino. Soon, it seemed, his life would be over. He was immediately moved to the safety of a boma in the park while his future was debated.

Things didn’t look hopeful for Munu. It was suggested that he should be euthanized as the cost of protecting him would be unrealistically high. To put him down seemed like the most pragmatic thing to do. The alternative, and the route generally preferred in conservation, would be to let nature take its course. In Munu’s case, this would mean releasing him back into the park, where he would almost certainly fall prey to the lions.

Happily, a third course was followed, and Munu now lives in a secure location where he is free and safe to live out his days in peace and without threat. Although Munu is blind, he is healthy in all other respects and able to make a valuable contribution to the gene pool of his rare desert-adapted subspecies Diceros bicornis bicornis.

There are no straight lines in such matters. No formula can be applied to arrive at the “correct” decision. Perhaps the following story helps to illustrate the point.

A week or so ago, I read that a UK-based conservation charity plans to move a herd of 13 elephants living in the Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent halfway across the world to Kenya. Quite an undertaking considering that some 25 tons of elephant brawn would have to be loaded aboard a Boeing 777 and then flown more than 4,350 miles to Africa.

At first take, it sounded like a wonderful #BackToTheWild initiative, an inspiring, triumphant saga of sending an entire family of elephants “home”—a record-breaking “world-first” rewilding attempt. But then I thought, “Why? What is the purpose?”

Certainly, these elephants are not in any hellhole. British weather might leave a lot to be desired. But even a casual peek at the facilities at the Aspinall Foundation estate in South East England is enough to reassure any concerned punter that as wildlife park billets go, these elephants have a pretty cushy place to roam around in. In other words, there is no “rescue” imperative here.

The other consideration would be that these elephants might add valuable genetic diversity to a small and threatened population of elephants in Kenya. Again, this is hardly the case as Kenya’s population is growing quite healthily. Sure, their numbers are still far from the levels of the late 1960s and early 70s, but the country’s herd has doubled since the dark years of the 1980s and now possibly stands at nearly 35,000. The 2021 census currently underway will give a more accurate data set, but it seems that Kenya’s elephants are doing rather well and certainly don’t need an injection of new genes.

So, if the Aspinall elephants are not being mistreated where they are, and Kenya doesn’t exactly need more elephants, what could be the advantage of uprooting them and exposing them—mature adults and babies alike—to the stress of translocation? It would be cruel, by my book—not only due to the rigors of a long-haul flight, but once in Africa, they would have to acclimatize to an utterly foreign climate, a different diet regimen, and many other dangers for which they would be ill-prepared. If the concern for these elephants is their wellbeing, then for the sake of reason, leave them where they are. What I would suggest is that some form of birth control for these elephants is long overdue. The crowd-pulling appeal of baby elephants is undisputed. But elephants live lives almost comparable to humans in length, so allowing this family to procreate is simply perpetuating the situation of elephants in captivity.

The Aspinall partner in Africa is the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which has its headquarters outside Nairobi on the fringes of the Nairobi National Park. I have the utmost respect and admiration for their continued work started by the late Dame Daphne Sheldrick. The Trust, named in honor of her husband David Sheldrick, a farmer and game warden, has done the most incredible work rescuing, raising, and rewilding baby elephants tragically orphaned due to poaching for ivory. The Aspinall Foundation could have no better partner, but I have to question the underlying motive. There also seems to be a brewing bureaucratic impediment to the translocation. The Kenyan Ministry of Tourism states that neither they nor the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has been contacted or consulted on this matter.

Apparently, the Aspinall Foundation “hopes the project will have a positive effect in the zoo industry by discouraging the trade in elephants and bolster commitment to returning animals to the wild, where possible.” Furthermore, it hopes that this project will encourage other zoos to do the same. This is a noble cause as the world would undoubtedly be improved by having far fewer wild animals leading miserable lives in captivity. And I am sure that the rewilding of some of the Aspinall inmates could well have both compassionate and conservation value, but not, I believe, in the case of these elephants.