In September 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) stunned animal advocates with an about-face in its decision to deny an application by Six Flags Marine World to import two baby Asian elephants from India.
Six Flags will now be allowed to bring Chameli, age four, and Sunduri, age three, to Vallejo, California, where they will live in a noisy amusement park as subjects in a dubious reproduction study. API and other organizations believe that Six Flags’ true goal is to exploit the animals for profit, and that they will be forced to endure cruel “training” methods and inhumane living conditions. The recent deaths of two elephants in the park’s care only add to advocates’ fears.
In its original decision denying Six Flags’ request for an endangered species import permit, the FWS found that the park failed to make “a compelling case for scientific research.” The importation of the elephants, the agency went on to say, “could have an indirect negative effect on the wild populations” by encouraging commercial trade of the species. Furthermore, the FWS stated, since “most of the impact upon the species is through habitat destruction, the purpose of this permit would provide no reduction in this primary threat to the species.”
API has objected to Six Flags’ application from the outset. In comments to the FWS, we noted that the park failed to provide essential information, including data about the animals’ origins, an adequate scientific proposal, justification for why the research should be done in captivity in the U.S., proof that the animals would not be used for commercial, and evidence that the importation would directly benefit the species in the wild. Six Flags’ appeal of the original decision did nothing to allay these concerns.
In a baffling reversal, the FWS now claims that import of the elephants could have a “positive” impact on endangered species. According to the new decision, information gained about elephants’ reproductive development could benefit wild animal populations. This explanation ignores the fact that artificial insemination is an impractical conservation tool for countries that cannot afford to protect their elephants from poaching and extensive habitat loss, much less provide the resources necessary to implement breeding programs.
The new decision also states that Six Flags “justifies the import, in part, by needing to conduct the research under controlled conditions that might not adequately be provided in the range country.” The FWS fails to explain, however, why the study requires that elephants be imported from India, nor why elephants currently held in United States circuses, zoos, and theme parks could not be used.
Questions about the young elephants’ origins remain unanswered, as well. The FWS newly approved permit evaluation says that “although we received no additional information regarding the circumstances surrounding the breeding resulting in the two female elephants ... we concur with India's assurance that the animals meet the criteria for the captive bred exemption" and recommends granting the permit. Six Flags claims that the baby elephants were born in captivity. It is unclear, however, whether they meet the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) definition of “captive bred,” which requires that both parents be maintained in captivity. In India, captive female elephants are bred almost exclusively with wild males. Because the Indian government stands to profit from the export of these two babies, the validity of its “assurances” about the origins of the elephants is suspect.
Smoke and Mirrors
Six Flags appears to have successfully disguised the true nature of its plans: to exploit the money-making potential of the endangered elephants. A for-profit amusement park, Six Flags Marine World submitted the FWS application on behalf of an entity called the “New Marine World Foundation.” Documents obtained by API reveal the clear financial ties between Six Flags Marine World and the New Marine World Foundation. A Certificate of Incorporation for the New Marine World Foundation lists Kiernan E. Burke, CEO of Six Flags Marine World, as CEO of the Foundation. Six Flags’ own CFO and General Counsel serve as the Foundation's CFO and Secretary, respectively. While the New Marine World Foundation claims to be a non-profit foundation, it has yet to achieve non-profit status from the Internal Revenue Service. There is little evidence that the Foundation is anything more than a front, designed to lend respectability to the park.
Claims about the educational benefits of the importation also ring hollow. Although the FWS frequently grants endangered species permits on the basis that public display and education “enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species,” API questions this assertion.
Behavioral research fails to find an association between viewing animals in a captive setting and either increased knowledge about or intention to take action to conserve the animal in the wild. In her 1997 book The Modern Ark, journalist Vicki Croke notes that the average zoo visitor spends three minutes or less viewing each exhibit and does not typically read informational signs. By housing acoustically sensitive species such as elephants in the midst of noisy thrill rides and gaping crowds, Marine World further undercuts claims of educational merit.
The amusement park’s true motivation is clear. Elephants, particularly young ones, are prized for commercial display because of their status as endangered animals and their mystique as the world's largest land mammal. They draw large crowds and increase gate receipts. But it is the animals themselves who will pay the highest price.
Chameli and Sunduri will be forcibly taken from their mothers at an unnaturally young age, causing them great stress and psychological harm. Adding to their fear and distress, they will then spend hours in small cages on a noisy airplane. As part of Six Flags’ reproductive “research,” the elephants will undergo invasive vaginal procedures, and will be kept under strict control by handlers.
If Six Flags’ past practices are any indication, Chameli and Sunduri will be “trained” using a method called “free contact dominance.” This philosophy relies on negative reinforcement, prolonged chaining, and systematic corporal punishment — including the use of a sharp, pointed club called an “ankus” — to cause pain and instill fear in the young elephants. Trainers use force, intimidation, and deprivation to “break” animals’ spirits in an effort to make them easier to control.
Late Breaking News! As this issue was going to press, the tide turned once again. In the face of a lawsuit filed by API, In Defense of Animals, PETA, and other organizations, Marine World surrendered its permit to export Chameli and Sunduri. The baby elephants will get to stay where they belong: in the wild, with their families. Animal advocates have vowed to continue to fight for these and other endangered animals should Six Flags submit any future applications for such blatantly commercial purposes.