Pittsburgh Zoo Rescues Three Elephants from Botswana


 (Pittsburgh) (July2011) --- Three female African elephants have a new home and a new lease on life in the United States thanks to the combined efforts of a multi-national team of dedicated individuals from the U.S., Botswana, and South Africa.  On Friday, July 15, two continents and three countries from where they began their journey, the three elephants stepped out of their crates, safe and in excellent condition.  

 But the journey for elephants Thandi, Seeni, and Sukiri, did not happen easily. In 2010, a handler suffered an injury while working with one of the elephants, which would not have been life threatening with appropriate medical attention. Unfortunately, the handler was far from any medical care and passed away. The wildlife laws in Botswana require that animals involved in fatal accidents must be destroyed. Their only respite was to be exported from the country.

 When the plea for help came to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) in the United States, the AZA asked the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium for help and the answer was a resounding YES!  “Despite all the hurdles and challenges we would face, we knew we had to try,” says Dr. Barbara Baker, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium was committed to rescuing these elephants and developing a plan for their long-term future, and quickly became their lifeline.

Dr. Baker and the Zoo team worked tirelessly to charter the large plane, obtain the proper permits, secure transportation, raise the necessary funds, and build a new temporary quarantine building at the International Conservation Center to house the new residents.

“The most difficult part was obtaining the proper permits and finding a plane that could carry three full-grown elephants,” says Dr. Baker. “We made significant strides and then were stalled for weeks. When it all came together, I almost couldn’t believe it! We helped rescue three fabulous elephants who have just an incredible history.”

The intercontinental airlift of three adult African elephants is an historic and incredible logistical exercise which was planned and executed by the Pittsburgh Zoo with the help of a skilled and experienced multi-national team, as well as local partners from Pittsburgh and Somerset. After weeks of crate training, the elephants were loaded into their crates, and then transported by truck from Gaborone, Botswana to the Johannesburg airport in South Africa. In Johannesburg, they were loaded onto a chartered 747 cargo plane, and flew directly to the Pittsburgh International Airport, a 20-hour plane ride! 

With help from a local trucking company from Somerset County, the animals were loaded onto three trailers, and transported to the ICC, straight through the Fort Pitt tunnel. Off loaded by a crane from Berlin PA, the animals stepped out of their crates two continents and three countries from where they began their journey, safe and in excellent condition.  

The three elephants’ story began in 1992 when the young elephants came together as orphans after they were slated to be culled in the Kruger National Park in South Africa during a government authorized cull. A sympathetic couple, Uttum and Dinky Corea, who are committed conservationists, heard about the culling and rescued the young elephants.

The family moved the elephants to their home in Botswana, where they built an elephant orphanage on their farm plot. The Coreas and the elephants developed a bond that grew over the years. While at the orphanage, the Corea children played with, helped the professional handlers with their care, and even rode the elephants, which surprised local residents and government officials.

When the elephants outgrew the orphanage, the family moved them to the Mokolodi Nature Reserve and Education Center, near the city of Gaborone. Uttum was a founding Trustee of the Reserve. Thousands of visitors were able, for the first time-ever, to see a live elephant up close, and the experience taught both children and adults to appreciate that animals and humans can coexist.

When the females reached sexual maturity, they were sent to a camp in the Okavango Delta, a pristine wilderness area in Botswana, to be mated by wild bull elephants. It was there in 2010 that the fatal injury occurred.

“No one really knows for sure what happened,” says Dr. Baker. “But you know there is always a risk when working with wild animals, and the gentleman was an experienced handler. Sadly, the injury would not have been fatal if they had not been in the bush.” The handling of trained elephants is a rare activity in Botswana and for that matter in Africa, and there are no established protocols regarding the handling of elephants.

The Corea’s with the support of the handler’s fiancé and family appealed to the Wildlife Authorities and arrived at a compromise decision, to stay the execution of the elephants all three had to be exported out of the country. One of the Corea’s children living in the United States made the plea to the AZA for help and the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium became the lifeline for these elephants. 

The Corea family is very happy with the elephants’ new home at the Pittsburgh Zoo’s International Conservation Center (ICC), in Somerset County.

“They will be very happy here,” says Uttum Corea, who visited the elephants shortly after their arrival at the ICC. “Though I will miss them, it was a good decision. They now have the possibility of becoming caring mothers and building herd stability in the next phase of their lives.” 

Thandi, Seeni and Sukiri along with their two mahouts or handlers are acclimating to their new home. In a couple of months, after undergoing a quarantine period, they will have the opportunity to meet the Zoo’s bull elephant, Jackson.

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Colcom Foundation, whose assistance made this effort possible.