- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Legal challenges from animal rights groups could delay plans to bring elephants from southern Africa to the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Omaha.

The zoo and two others in Dallas and Wichita, Kansas, received federal permission to import 18 elephants. The Omaha zoo is planning to get six elephants.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits approved this week will allow the zoos to take the elephants from Big Game Parks, an independent nonprofit that manages several wildlife parks in Swaziland. The park was planning to kill the elephants as a population control measure because the growing elephant herd was degrading the park’s food supply and endangering other animals.

As part of the partnership, the three zoos will send about $450,000 over several years to Big Game Parks for black rhino conservation.

But animal-rights groups argue the exchange is a commercial transaction forbidden by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Omaha World-Herald reported (https://bit.ly/1PLhuH3 ) Saturday. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups have tried to delay, alter or cancel the import since plans were first announced in 2014.

“This is sending a really dangerous signal to other African countries that there is money to be made by sending elephants to American zoos,” said Rachel Mathews, PETA Foundation counsel.

PETA representatives said the group doesn’t plan to take legal action, but the Animal Legal Defense Fund said it might.

“(The zoos) intend to use the elephants for breeding programs to repopulate a dwindling inventory of captive elephants and boost ticket sales with the birth of baby elephants,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, in a statement.

Dennis Pate, CEO and executive director of the Omaha zoo, denied that the money for the rhino conservation trust constitutes buying of elephants.

“Lots of good things come out of this,” Pate said. “No. 1, you save elephants from being culled in Swaziland. No. 2, we get to help rhinos at the same time. And No. 3, we strengthen the genetic pool of elephants in North America and make them more sustainable.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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