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Transcript
Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon. Ian Campbell

Press Conference at Taronga Zoo, Sydney
Wednesday, 20 July 2005

Co-operative conservation program for elephants


SENATOR CAMPBELL:
I want to announce that I have made a decision to approve the co-operative conservation program which will see eight elephants from Asia come to the Taronga and Melbourne Zoos and to issue the import licenses - import permits - under the conservation convention on international trade on endangered species permit requirement. I've looked very closely at this decision; the decision has taken a long time - I know that's frustrated a number of people but it wasn't an easy decision. I had to convince myself that this breeding program, that the conservation program, can work. I'm convinced that it can work. I'm also convinced that, historically speaking, Australia has a choice when it comes to this co-operative conservation program. If we choose to engage with our Asian neighbours on this important conservation work, conservation work that will mean the life or death of this entire species, we have the opportunity to engage through this program, or the alternative is to turn our back. I don't think Australians want to turn their back on these Asian elephants that are under serious risk and serious threat across about 15 countries in our neighborhood. There is a risk to the species because of habitat reduction; a risk to the species because they are coming more and more into conflict with farmers; and the as numbers deteriorate the world is going to focus more and more on just we need to do. And you need a portfolio approach to this. There are no single-shot, silver-bullet answers, and we've proven that captive breeding programs for threatened and endangered species can make a contribution; they won't be the only answer. But I think, importantly, by engaging in this program, Australia and all Australians will have a long-term relationship with Asia and with the conservation of Asian elephants. This is a decision that will last for generations. We bring the endangered elephants here with the prospect of building a sustainable elephant population in Australia. We have magnificent facilities here at Taronga and in Melbourne and there are other zoos contemplating future additions to the program, as I understand it. This is, as I said, a generational decision. You bring these eight animals here; you create a sustainable population. This is a long-term engagement for potentially hundreds of years between Australia and our Asian neighbors and it is an engagement that I am confident can make an important contribution to the conservation of these magnificent animals.

JOURNALIST:
Why is it up to Australia to do this?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
I think it's up to all people of the world and Australia is a part of this region. I think all Australians want to see not only the Australian environment conserved and improved, to hand on to the next generation, a better environment than which we have inherited. But I think we also live as part of a globe, we live in the world. We are concerned about global issues, like climate change, and other species. We're concerned, as we've seen in recent weeks, about plight of whales that migrate across the hemispheres. So I think all Australians, and the Australian Government, supports them in this. I think that we should take responsibility with our other countries for these global environmental issues and we can make a contribution here. I believe that the program put forward by the Melbourne and Taronga Zoos can make an historic difference for the survival of this species and that's why I have made this decision, announced today, to import the elephants into Australia and get this co-operative conservation moving.

JOURNALIST:
...taking court action. What's your response to that?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
I understand that some groups will be disappointed with this decision. I welcome the support of the RSPCA here in NSW to support my decision. That's very welcome. I have heard threat of legal action. I don't think that would be in the best interests of elephants. But we live in a democracy, we live in a place where the court system is an important part of that democracy and if these groups feel they need to take legal action, I'm sure they'll do it. But I've taken a long time to make this decision, I've looked at all the material very carefully, I've consulted very closely with all the interest groups. It's been a hard decision to make because there have been fair arguments put by both sides. But I've made this decision. I respect those that disagree with my decision and I ask them to respect my decision.

JOURNALIST:
Given that court action is pending, what arrangements will be made for the elephants in the meantime, while that's going on?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
The elephants are in quarantine at the moment in Thailand. The proposal is to move them, and in fact my decision requires them to be moved as soon as possible to Cocos Island, to a quarantine facility there for three months and then come to the zoo. The impact of any pending legal action, if it takes place - and I really hope that it doesn't; it's not in the interests of the elephants, it's not in the interests of the conservation of elephants for this to become a feast for lawyers - but if that happens, then clearly, we'd have to look at the legal consequences.

JOURNALIST:
...not enough room for very large animals...need roaming land...

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
These are arguments that have been put forward, but they're arguments that I don't think stand up to close scrutiny. These are animals that have been bred in captivity; these are animals that have as part of their normal working life from the time they have been born have been on tethers. So I've got no doubt in my mind that the facilities at Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo are world class up to the very best standards of metropolitan zoos around the world. Metropolitan zoos around the world have shown us that elephants can be successfully bred in captivity, literally hundreds of them have been bred all around the world and that these elephants lead healthy, happy, fruitful lives. And clearly if we can breed them in captivity here Taronga and Melbourne - and potentially other zoos down the track - then we can make a historic contribution as a nation to conserving these incredibly important species.

JOURNALIST:
Have you personally read of the correspondence from people objecting to this?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
I have read enormous reams of correspondence. With the exception of whales, I've read more about elephants in the last few months than virtually any other subject.

JOURNALIST:
(...inaudible...) commercial decision, that the zoos need big ticket items to get audiences back in zoos to see the animals?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
That's one of the arguments of the animal welfare lobby but I think that's comprehensively been proven to be wrong. I think if you look at the raw figures that are involved, trying to get a small increase in your turnout at the gate is unlikely to offset the enormous expense. The issue of the permit has as one of its primary conditions that the elephants can't be used for commercial benefit and I'm absolutely convinced that there is no commercial benefit.

JOURNALIST:
The facilities where these elephants are going to be kept in the interim during any legal action - what's it like?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
I've actually been to the Cocos when I was the Minister for Territories. It's a quarantine facility; it's ready for the elephants now, I am assured, and they will be there for three months. A condition of the permit is that the elephants are moved in a way that's not detrimental to their health or their wellbeing and I am convinced that the quarantine facilities at Cocos Island, an Australian territory, are entirely appropriate for this work. To the impact of any future legal action, can I just say to the animal welfarists who are trying to stop this happening that I respect your views closely; I respect the views of those who care for animal welfare; please have some respect for a decision that I have taken after enormous consultation; enormous deliberation. And I think it is a decision that they should respect. I think the only winner out of legal action will be the lawyers, and we should care more about the elephants than we do about feeding lawyers.

JOURNALIST:
...Cocos ...given that legal action is imminent today?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
Well I've heard threats of legal action; I'm not going to pre-empt what occurs if legal action does take place; that's something we'll deal with if it occurs. I appeal to the animal welfarists who don't like this decision to respect the fact that we've looked into it very carefully; we've carefully considered their views; we've tested them; we've analysed them; we've looked at all of the aspects of the decision. I believe that if you want to play a part in conserving Asian elephants that are under threat because of habitat loss (...inaudible...) then it's very important that Australia becomes a part of a co-operative part to do so. To not do so is to turn your back on their plight. This will create a long-term generational engagement between Australia and Asia in one of the world's really important conservation programs.

JOURNALIST:
If the breeding program does fail, what would you do? Will you reassess or would you scrutinise the breeding program? What's the follow-up plan?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
Well I've had to make a decision based on all of the facts that are before me. I'm convinced, based on all of those facts, that this program can be successful and will be successful. And I wish the zoos well in that. Part of the decision-making process is that there have been successful breeding programs in a whole range of countries across the globe and I think those - if they can't breed elephants in captivity - are saying, well, America can do it, European countries can do it, but Australia can't do it. I don't accept that. I think in most things Australians can do things better than everybody else in the world; in virtually everything we do we can prove that. And I think to say that we can't do what other countries have done in captivity really is putting Australia down and saying that the people at the zoos, the experts that are focused on making this co-operative program work, are less able and less capable than people in other parts of the world. I know that simply isn't true.

JOURNALIST:
(...inaudible...)

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
No, I think the proof of that pudding is that if I was of a mind just to say 'yes', I could have done that a long, long time ago. I've looked very carefully at this. I had to put out of my mind that - I'm absolutely certain the zoos would have had contingency plans based on me saying 'no' - I came to my decision in the last couple of days but I could easily have made a different decision. And I have to put out of my mind these things. They're decisions that the zoos have to make. The zoos, if they want to import elephants, need to convince the authorities - which is me in this circumstance - that they have the facilities available. So the zoos are in a difficult position; it's a bit of a chicken and the egg; they need to show the facilities exist but it remains open for me to say 'no'. You just have to put those things out of your mind; the zoos would have had to get on with life and accept my decision. So I felt no special pressure because the facilities were here. Both zoos already have elephants so I'm quite sure they could have used these facilities for their existing elephants. So it's something that didn't overly concern me, to be frank.

JOURNALIST:
What's the expectation of elephant calves? Surely that's part of the zoo's detailed breeding plan?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
Well, that is very much the case: the zoos want to develop a sustainable family of elephants from this group of elephants that I'm now going to authorise the import of. That is the process; they want to develop a sustainable herd of elephants and for that to contribute to conservation of elephants or to benefit our region and future generations.

JOURNALIST:
What numbers? Have they given you any numbers of expectations?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
Yes, it's all in the detail of the submission.

JOURNALIST:
Can you tell us?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
Well, I've got all of that in the detail of the submission. My understanding of the sustainable family is around about 40 in the long run. Yes, forty, 4-0.

JOURNALIST:
Over a number of years?

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
Over a number of years; you've got to start with one. We look forward to the first successful pregnancy.

JOURNALIST:
(...inaudible)

SENATOR CAMPBELL:
Five elephants. But I think all of the details of how they are going to be managed is probably something for Mr Cooper to address. But you're going to have five animals here at Taronga and three in Melbourne.

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