Packing the trunk: how to get an elephant to the UAE

James Langton offers Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort advice on the jumbo-sized cost of buying an elephant and bringing it home with minimal fuss.

African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), National Park, Kenya
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How do you buy an elephant? And once you have bought your elephant, how do you pack up your pachyderm and get it home? These are not questions that trouble most of us, but they could soon be asked by the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort. Officials at the zoo say they are looking at the logistics involved in obtaining an elephant after receiving numerous requests from visitors.

According to Dr Michael Maunder, the chief collection, conservation and education officer of the park, "our visitor surveys tell us that our guests want to see elephants." The zoo's African mixed exhibit already includes giraffe, zebra, gemsbok, gazelle, ostrich, wildebeest and rhinoceros. A family of African elephants (Elephantidae loxodonta) would surely fit in very nicely. Unless, of course, it's Elephantidae elephas, or the Asian elephant that you are looking for.

So the first decision is, African or Asian? The latter is divided into a number of subspecies, with populations in India, Sri Lanka, Borneo and Sumatra. It is frequently domesticated and trained as a beast of burden. The African elephant is larger, up to 6.8 tonnes when fully grown and 3.6 metres at the shoulder. Unlike the Asian variety, both the males and females have tusks. Also, the African elephant does not work for a living.

By reputation, the African elephant is the more aggressive of the two. In fact, says Deborah Olson, of the International Elephant Foundation, both species can be kept successfully in captivity, although in either case the males tend to be the most difficult to accommodate. Most zoos, though, have Asian elephants. Either way, there are rules to be followed before the elephant is yours. For the past 35 years, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, has governed the international trade in wildlife. As a signatory to Cites, the UAE abides by its rules, which are designed to protect species and their environments.

According to Cites, both African and Asian elephants have been placed on its Red List, meaning they are endangered, since 2000. Trade in live animals, however, is permitted, under strictly controlled circumstances. African elephants in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe can be traded for conservation purposes. Cites describes this as the "export of live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations".

A spokesman for the organisation at its headquarters in Switzerland explained that "acceptable" referred to non-commercial scientific organisations. As a major, and fast expanding, research institution, Al Ain would surely qualify for elephants if it wanted them once it had registered its interest with Cites. In the past, African elephants have been made available by the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which has so many animals that it has been forced to cull its population. According to The New York Times, the game reserve sent more than 180 elephants to other countries in the 1980s, asking around US$1,900 (Dh7,000) for a male and $2,600 (Dh9,500) for a female.

Wanda Mkutshulwa, the park's head of communications, says that it has not sent any elephants abroad since a family was sent Mozambique three years ago. It imposes strict conditions on exports. The elephants must be able to wander around freely, she says. "They will need several hundred hectares." The Al Ain Wildlife Park has five hectares in its African exhibit, and would probably not qualify. In any case, she says: "Nobody wants elephants. They are too much trouble."

Countries with populations of Asian elephants also allow exports, again only to recognised scientific programmes or institutions. Unlike African elephants, they can only be taken from captive populations. Again, the trade is governed by Cites. Eight Thai elephants were sent to zoos in Australia three years ago, prompting protests from animal rights activists. Exports are handled by the country's forestry department, which says it is currently reviewing its regulations and expects to make changes.

If Al Ain needs advice, it could do worse than to turn to the world-famous San Diego zoo. The two zoos signed a 20-year agreement in 2008 that will transform Al Ain into a major centre of conservation, with assistance from the Californian institution. Just as significant, San Diego has a new elephant exhibit and plenty of experience in obtaining and transporting the animals. Last year, the zoo welcomed Jewel and Tina, two Asian elephants that had been rescued by the US Department of Agriculture's animal and plant health inspection service from a private collector in Texas.

The animals were driven to California in an air-condition lorry under supervision by the San Diego humane society, On arrival it took two hours to tempt the elephants from the truck, using bunches of bananas. A more complex operation was the acquisition of a small herd of African elephants from Swaziland in 2003. Seven African elephants were due to be culled because of over-population, but instead were offered a new home in San Diego. The rescue operation was a complex one that began with vets tranquillising the animals in the wild, from the air. The animals were then held in quarantine for five months before being flown to the US in cargo aircraft.

The operation was a complete success - nine baby elephants have since been born. Cites also regulates the transport of elephants. Its list of requirements for anyone considering moving an elephant is not for the faint hearted. For air transport, Cites uses rules drawn up by the International Air Transport Association. Its "packers list" alone runs to nearly 50 points. Among the requirements: "The dimensions of the container for large species should be such that the animal is unable to turn around or to somersault."

Also: "The roof may be of slatted construction and so designed that there is no danger of the animal injuring itself due to tusks or horns becoming trapped, nor any danger of the crate being crushed inwards when lifted." Although most elephants being moved over long distances will be moved by aircraft, a mere jumbo jet is not up to the job. A favourite is the monster Antonov An-124, a Russian cargo aircraft, which has also been used to deliver captive whales. An alternative is the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, an American military aircraft that has sometimes helped American zoos. Conveniently, the UAE has four on order.

None of this comes cheap. The insurance alone for the operation to move the elephants from Swaziland to San Diego came to US$1.7 million (Dh6.25m). Some idea of the overall costs can be gathered from the acquisition of Asian elephants by Sydney's Taronga Zoo in November 2006. Because one of the elephants, Gung, was an adolescent male to be used in a breeding programme, Dh22 million first had to be spent on a special enclosure to hold him during the annual musth period, when testosterone levels rise by as much 60 times, and the animals can become extremely aggressive.

Feeding the animals (and their mahout handlers) while they waited in transit cost Dh323,000, while transporting the hay for the elephants added Dh271,000. Protests by animal rights activists meant the first flight, using an Antonov, was cancelled. A deposit of Dh1.8 million was lost as a result. The final air freight bill came to Dh7 million. Obtaining the necessary paperwork from the Thai government, including legal costs, added the equivalent of another Dh4 million. Hosting Thai officials on visits to Sydney to persuade them it was a good idea, building a quarantine facility in Thailand and flying the mahouts to Australia came to Dh5.2 million. All this for just five elephants.

If Al Ain Wildlife Park does finally decide to bow to pressure from visitors and add elephants to its collection it can be sure of one thing. The elephant is a mighty beast, but the cost of getting one is much, much larger.