July 7, 2021
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Plans by Carrie Johnson’s animal conservation charity to fly 13 elephants from a zoo in Kent to live in the wild in Kenya have been questioned by the country’s wildlife ministry, which said it was not aware of the scheme.
Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife said that relocating and rehabilitating animals from a zoo was “not easy” and expressed concern that neither it nor the Kenya Wildlife Service had been contacted or consulted about the relocation.
A press release issued on Monday by the Aspinall Foundation, where the prime minister’s wife works as head of PR, stated it would be working with the Kenya Wildlife Service on a “world first . . . to rewild an entire breeding herd of 13 African elephants, including three calves”.
Conservation scientists have also raised concerns about the plan, accusing the foundation of putting the elephants’ lives at risk in a project which was more about gaining media attention than conserving the species.
Professor Keith Somerville, of the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, said that the captive-bred elephants, which live in an eight-acre enclosure at Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, were likely to die in the wild.
The foundation is seeking to raise £1 million in donations to fund the relocation, which Somerville described as “an expensive, stressful and potentially risky procedure that will get lots of media attention but do nothing of value for elephant conservation”.
He said that the elephant population in Kenya had more than doubled to 34,000 since 1989 and the human population had also increased sharply, resulting in increasing conflicts as elephants destroyed crops and water pumps.
“Kenya doesn’t need the introduction of captive-bred elephants with no experience of the climate, water and vegetation, and no institutional memory of foraging in the wild and migration routes,” he said.
Introducing the 13 elephants could make rural Kenyans less tolerant of those already there, he said, adding: “Money should be invested into projects that help mitigate human-elephant conflict, not into flying elephants around the globe to likely die in the wild, to which they are totally unaccustomed.”
He said it seemed likely that the elephants would go to Tsavo East National Park in Kenya where the high salinity of the water poses risks to large animals not used to it. When the Kenya Wildlife Service tried in June 2018 to relocate black rhinos from elsewhere in the country to Tsavo, they all died very quickly, he added.
Adam Hart, professor of science communication at the University of Gloucestershire who has presented wildlife documentaries for BBC radio, said that the project was ego conservation, not real conservation, and was “nonsense, pointless and may well end up with very negative consequences”.
He said: “If people want to do stuff for their own vanity fair enough, but when that translates into something with zero conservation benefit and actually potential costs to people, elephants, habitats and future conservation that’s where it feels like a line gets crossed, where it becomes harmful.”
A spokesman for the Aspinall Foundation said it had been in contact with the Kenya Wildlife Service at a senior level about the plan since November last year.
Johnson and her boss, Damian Aspinall, the foundation’s chairman, wrote in The Sun yesterday that the plan followed “years of weighing up the benefits and the risks”.
They added: “Of course there are risks to elephant health that you don’t find in the Home Counties. There are lions and crocodiles, tsetse flies and ticks. But the Aspinall Foundation has experience of rewilding projects around the world, and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust will ensure there are wardens on hand to monitor and assist the transition.
“We will use dedicated antipoaching teams to protect the new arrivals and our zoologists are confident the project will be successful.
“Life in Kent is pretty good for these elephants, all things considered, but Africa is where they belong.”
They noted that the average lifespan of an elephant in captivity was 16.9 years compared to 56 years in a Kenyan park.
Will Travers, co-founder of Born Free, a charity which wants zoos to be phased out, said: “Without doubt this will be an enormously challenging project and not without risk, but it sends a powerful message that traditional zoos, even those that place a high priority on the care of their animals, are not the place for elephants and, in our opinion, wild animals in general.”