A vet who dedicated years to caring for the elephants at Auckland Zoo says the decision to move its two female elephants Burma and Anjalee boils down to a lack of money.
But Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley is adamant the decision has nothing to do with saving money and is entirely motivated by animal welfare.
"This heart-breaking but right decision to move Anjalee and Burma is all about ensuring we meet the very different needs of these two elephants and give them both the elephant family herd they both need for their long-term health and wellbeing," he said.
The decision to end the zoo's long association with elephants in November last year was followed by the loss last month of another popular attraction when its two elderly lions Zulu and Malik were euthanised on welfare grounds.
The plan is to welcome new lions at the zoo.
John Potter, who was involved with the zoo's elephant team for many years until he retired in 2013, said elephants are expensive to keep properly. They require four full-time keepers, have large dietary needs and occupy a large area of the zoo, he said.
Potter said Buley has stated that Burma and Anjalee are happy, but the decision for the zoo to end its association with elephants is on the grounds the two females will not be able to breed.
"One must ask, if the elephants are happy why alter the situation unless it is to save money.
"Burma has probably a further 12 years to live and this gives the zoo adequate time to replace her with perhaps elephants from the Australian elephant breeding programme.
"While elephants are herd animals and shouldn't be kept on their own, there is no real requirement to breed them. Auckland Zoo haven't had a successful elephant breeding programme ever, but has successfully and humanely kept elephants," said Potter.
Buley was disappointed with Potter's views on the zoo's decision to move the elephants, saying it was sad he did not raise them with the zoo directly.
"Auckland Zoo is a not-for-profit conservation organisation that will always put the welfare and care of its animals first," he said.
Buley said contrary to what Potter is saying, in the short to medium term there will be no savings and the elephant team, who look after other species, will remain employed and travel to Australia to settle them into their new home.
Last November, the zoo announced the elephants would be moving on and last month confirmed Anjalee will join the herd of elephants at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo and Burma will head to Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland to join an all-female herd. They are due to move later this year.
Buley said the decision followed an unsuccessful attempt to establish an elephant family herd since 2015, including the failure to secure an additional female from the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka where Anjalee came from and five failed artificial insemination attempts with Anjalee.
Buley said Anjalee, aged 14, whose biological clock is ticking, needs to be given the opportunity to breed soon to avoid long-term health issues, saying "we would be failing Anjalee if we did not give her every opportunity to breed".
He said the reason the two elephants are "happy" and have great lives at Auckland Zoo is due to an exceptional elephant team and the level of skill, dedication and care they provide.
The decision, Buley said, is not about how the elephants are now and will be in the short term - "because they are doing great" - but about their long-term future and long-term wellbeing.
This is not the first time the future of elephants at Auckland Zoo has been linked to budget pressures.
During the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, the former Auckland City Council considered phasing out elephants at Auckland Zoo when it became apparent Kashin could die and leave Burma on her own.
The then zoo director Jonathan Wilcken sought $13.5 million to build a herd of elephants by importing three new female and two male elephants, plus annual operating costs of $460,000, including up to 11 specialist staff, to manage the herd.
He said they attracted enormous public interest, held a special place in Aucklanders' hearts and were key to promoting the value of wildlife.
The council did not build up a herd, but after Kashin was euthanised in 2009, Anjalee was brought to Auckland Zoo from Sri Lanka in 2015.