(TNS) — Opposition to importing African elephants to three American zoos, including the Sedgwick County Zoo, is brewing.

Seventy-five scientists, conservationists and animal welfare advocates wrote a letter opposing the federal approval of import permits that would send 18 elephants from the South African country of Swaziland to zoos in Wichita, Dallas and Omaha.

“For the 18 elephants targeted for importation, it is no exaggeration to conclude they face a sad uncertain future,” said the letter dated Monday. “We call on the Kingdom of Swaziland and the zoos involved in the import to do what is in the best interests of these elephants and relocate them to a protected park or sanctuary in Africa.”

The Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and the Sedgwick County Zoo reached an agreement with a Swazi wildlife trust for new elephants. The Dallas Zoo, on behalf of the other two zoos, applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the first importation of elephants from Swaziland since 2003.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will take comments until Nov. 23 and then reach a decision on the import permits. The draft environmental assessment suggests the Fish and Wildlife Service is leaning toward approving the permits.

Sedgwick County Zoo plans to add six elephants from Africa

The wildlife trust and the zoos say the only alternative to exporting the elephants is culling, or killing, them to keep the ecosystem in check with other threatened species like the black rhino.

But the opposing coalition disputes the intentions and reasoning of the zoos and wildlife trust.

Why they oppose the import

Here’s what the elephant advocates say in their letter opposing the permits:

• Captivity hurts wild elephants: Elephants do not thrive in zoos, physically or mentally. They often fail to breed, and elephant calves are more likely to die in captivity.

• No effort to keep elephants in Africa: The permit applicants have not “seriously explored” options that would send the elephants to other parks or sanctuaries on their home continent. Those options could offer “real conservation value, the promise of minimal harm and distress to the elephants and the prospect of a natural life.”

• The threat of culling is wrong: Culling elephants to trim the population is an unethical and outdated practice and the zoos are “leveraging these threats” to gain support for the transfer.

• Elephants do not threaten black rhino populations in Swaziland.

• Zoos are not “conservation”: Keeping elephants in zoos does not boost their numbers in the wild. “None of the elephants or their offspring will be returned to the wild, the gold standard of conservation.”

• The Swazis have poor conservation methods: Neither threatening to kill elephants to maintain current numbers nor exporting them abroad is sound conservation.

• Saving black rhinos at the expense of elephants is unjustified: The ends do not justify the means, and both threatened species deserve humane solutions.

• The import is just business: The zoos have already invested in new elephant exhibits and are intent on filling them with elephants.

Zoo responds

Sedgwick County Zoo Director Mark Reed defended the proposal to import the elephants from Swaziland.

Reed said it is too costly and unsafe for elephants to be transferred elsewhere in Africa.

“There’s no place that they’re going to be able to move those elephants where they’re going to be protected and safe,” Reed said.

Drought and crowded national parks have forced the Swazis to either export the elephants or keep the population in check through culling, he said.

“It is the reality of the world that they have a very tough decision, and there’s nothing harder than culling something that you love,” Reed says.

Zoos can be a safe home for the elephants given the threat of poaching in the wild and in national parks, Reed said.

“Our job here is to give them the best life possible and provide the people in our community and area that opportunity to experience that, get that emotional attachment and hopefully make a difference,” Reed said.

Legal action?

The letter was written by a coalition of scientists, professors, elephant advocates, filmmakers, researchers and lawyers from American and international groups.

Some of the groups, such as the Born Free Foundation, Animal Legal Defense Fund, In Defense of Animals and Animal Welfare Institute, tried to block the last African elephant transfer from Swaziland.

They sued the Department of the Interior, which houses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for issuing the permits for the 2003 import of 11 elephants from Africa to zoos in San Diego and Tampa. The transfers eventually went through.

The letter does not say they will try to block the transfer this time.

Reed said a legal fight could follow if the Fish and Wildlife Service approves the request.

“I assume they will look at litigation if the permits are issued,” Reed said.

“But it’s up to them.”