New elephants are coming to Auckland Zoo - but not everyone is happy about it. We look at the arguments for and against the council's $3.5 million new attractions

Why are we talking about this now?

The Auckland Council this week approved the purchase of two "orphan" elephants for Auckland Zoo.

Two female Asian elephants, likely to be aged between eight and 12, are being sought to keep lone elephant Burma company. Elephants are intelligent animals that thrive on social interaction, and since Kashin's death in 2009, 28 year-old Burma has only had a horse named Cherry for company.

The zoo has begun looking for young captive elephants, probably from a sanctuary in Pinnewala, Sri Lanka. Its keepers are seeking females because males are poorer company, as they tend to stray from their mother.

Advertisement

Wasn't the Auckland Zoo going to buy a herd of elephants?

The proposal to expand the zoo into Western Springs park to allow for the breeding of 10 elephants has been sidelined, but not scrapped altogether.

It faced opposition from neighbouring residents who worried about the sprawl of the new enclosures and ratepayers concerned about the $13 million price tag. It also prompted international outcry from a group of high-profile elephant experts who were uneasy about the mass translocation of sensitive, rare animals.

Auckland Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken says it has prioritised finding companions for Burma.

He said the move was not a compromise, because the zoo had always aimed to have more company for Burma.

"We canvassed the idea of a larger project but ... at this point it didn't seem to make any sense to do anything other than provide properly, socially, for Burma."

Although a large herd is ideal for elephants social lives, it is not crucial for breeding. Auckland Zoo has a conservation agreement with Australian zoos, and can initiate breeding or artifical insemination through this partnership.

Does this help conservation?

Advertisement

Mr Wilcken says "conservation is the driving force" behind the purchase of the elephants. But, he adds, "it is not the type of conservation that people most expect". By which he means breeding animals and releasing them into the wild.

"All wildlife conservation problems are going to be solved by people, and people's attitudes. One of the key roles in zoos is to start influencing the attitudes of people towards the environment as early as possible."

He said emotional connection to animals bred in zoos was the most persuasive tool in encouraging young, urbanised people to be conservationally minded.

"You can use all the rational arguments, but unless people feel it emotionally, they won't make the changes we're asking them to.

"You can see the ones who are seeing an elephant for the first time. It is written all over their faces - an extraordinary experience. It is the first building block."

Asked whether using captive elephants to promote animal protection was a tenuous message, he said caged animals were only one part of the zoo's support for conservation.

Mr Wilcken cites American research that suggests zoo visitors are more likely to become more rounded conservationists.

Animal welfare groups have suggested that this vision, and the use of captive animals as "mascots" for their species, is "greenwash",

Safe campaign director Eliot Pryor says the zoo is failing to look at the larger conservation picture - of the welfare of the entire species, or the pressures on elephant's natural habitat in Asia.

A consortium of distinguished, international zoologists and elephant experts wrote to the council last week, urging it to send Burma to an overseas wildlife sanctuary.

The group argued that importing the elephants would disrupt their social patterns, and failed to secure better outcomes for the animals in their country of origin.

But Mr Wilcken says none of these experts had personally observed Auckland Zoo's facilities, or inspected Burma first-hand.

"No one cares for these animals more than we do. To suggest that we are not giving [Burma] a happy life is disappointing."

A 2008 study published in the journal

Science

which compared wild, working, and captive elephants showed living in zoos could significantly shorten the animals' lives.

Mr Wilcken contends that Asian elephants have been domesticated for centuries, and the elephants sourced from Sri Lanka would never end up in the wilderness. Breeding domesticated animals for release into the wild is a "fantasy", he says.

"For the elephants in [Pinnewala], there is no wild to put them in."

Does the zoo need elephants?

More than any other captive animal at Auckland Zoo, the elephants generate a sense of wonder.

The popularity of the animals was best spelled out in the enormous turnout of 20,000 people for Kashin's funeral in 2009. The 40-year-old elephant's name was known by nearly every child in Auckland.

Former chair of the Auckland Zoo's board, Graeme Mulholland, says the zoo will not fail without its elephants, but will lose its icons.

"I was born in Dunedin, with both sets of grandparents in Auckland, and the only thing I ever wanted to do in Auckland was see the elephants in the zoo. It was absolutely essential. And my South Island grandchildren feel the same way."

He says a large proportion of New Zealanders will not travel in their lives, so can only ever see an endangered species in captivity.

"It's all very well to tell people to see meerkats, rhinos, tigers in their natural environment.

"Documentaries and the National Geographic are great, but there is nothing like the smell, the feel of being near an elephant."

In a council-commissioned poll asking Aucklanders whether the zoo should keep elephants 84 per cent of people voted "yes".

Elephants are reportedly a big earner. When the new elephants are bought, the zoo is gambling on a 10 per cent rise in visitors a year in order to pay off the price of flying them in.

Is $3.2 million a good deal for two elephants?

The $3.2 million is not for the purchase of the elephants, because international animal rights rules forbid the sale of the endangered animals. Around $2.2 million of the amount covers the complicated transport by charter planes from Asia to Niue, where the animals will be quarantined. Transport of zoo staff and the establishment of a quarantine facility in Niue will cost $352,000. The zoo will undertake $320,000 of renovations to accommodate the new arrivals.

The $3.2 million is not directly funded by ratepayers. The zoo has opposed a grant, and instead it will be loaned the funds by the council. A financial analysis commissioned by the council estimates that the zoo will recoup this cost and generate $900,000 in profit in the next five years. This projected profit is due to estimated visitor increases of 10 per cent, as well as membership and merchandise sales.

The zoo's purchase of sea lions in 2006 led to a spike of 65,000 visitors that year, but that dramatic increase could not be maintained.

Independent elephant experts have suggested the animals' operational costs could blow out in the next decade as the elephants outgrow their facilities. The elephants enclosure will need upgrading before 2021.

The financial report says each elephant will cost the zoo $100,000 a year.

The elephant-generated revenue will not kick until late 2012, when the animals are predicted to arrive.

Right-leaning councillor Cameron Brewer, who opposed the purchase on animal welfare grounds, said the purchase was the best of two options - the breeding programme would have cost in excess of $13 million, some of it from ratepayers' pockets.

Elephant facts

*

Eat 57kg of food a day, mostly hay, herbivore pellets and acacia.

*

Drink 113.5 litres of water a day.

*

Skin is 2.5cm thick on some parts of its body.

*

Teeth can weigh 2kg and be the size of a brick.

*

Bodyweight up to 6800kg.

*

May live more than 50 years, as long as 65.

*

Their trunks aren't straws - they suck water part-way up and pour it in their mouths.

Source: San Diego Zoo

Some of the Auckland Zoo's past elephants
Jamuna:

Auckland Zoo's first elephant was Jamuna, a female Indian elephant. But 30 years after arriving, Jamuna killed her longtime keeper Frank Lane with a single swipe of her trunk. She died in 1965.

Rajah:

Rajah arrived in 1930 as the first male elephant at the zoo. Rajah spent six years in Auckland before his keeper lost control of him. Rajah went mad and was put down. His stuffed corpse is on display in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Ma Schwe:

Ma Schwe spent time with Rajah at the zoo, but died suddenly of acute heart failure a year after Rajah was put down.

Kashin:

Kashin was born in captivity in Thailand, and brought to the zoo in 1972, aged four. In 2009, 40-year-old Kashin was euthanised after arthritis and abscesses crippled her, and the obvious pain became too much. When she died, 17,000 people came to her funeral.

Burma:

Joined Kashin in 1990 and developed a close companionship. At age 20, Burma dropped a large log on an electric fence, making it inactive, and escaped into the park. Since Kashin died, zoo staff have been constantly watching Burma, aware of the social need of elephants. Advocates say her probable loneliness is one reason a herd would be desirable.