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

Interview with Paul Murray, Radio 6PR (Perth)

Wednesday, 20 July 2005

Importation of Asian elephants

Earlier in the morning I spoke to Nicola Beynon from the Humane Society International about the decision which has been taken today by the Minister for the Environment, Senator Ian Campbell, to allow eight Asian elephants from Thailand to be brought in by Taronga and Melbourne Zoos. Now, she put their argument and she told us that they're going to challenge the Minister's decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Minister Ian Campbell is on the line now to tell us his point of view on this. Good morning, Ian.

Good morning, Paul. I did get a bit of feedback on Nicola's comments on the program this morning and one of the comments she made was that these animals haven't breed in zoos. The reality is that - and this certainly formed part of my opinion making process - and I've got a list in front of me of 33 zoos around the world, many of them metropolitan zoos, where there's been multiple births of elephants. Just to give you an idea the Hanover Zoo there's been 21 born there, elephants in captivity; the Oregon Zoo in the USA, 29; Fort Worth Zoo, 5; the Metro Zoo in Canada, 2; Houston Zoo, 13; Zurich Zoo, you know you can go on. Even the Moscow Zoo are breeding them. Singapore Zoo, 3. So elephants can breed in captivity. Elephants are under serious threat in our near neighbourhood. Australia has a choice to be part of the solution, part of an important international environmental mission to save these elephants, or to turn our back and say well it's some one else's problem, and I think this is a very good decision for the conservation of elephants.

Ian, what happens to the elephants that are successfully breed then? Are they returned to the wild, to boost the numbers in the wild?

Well, ultimately that could occur, that's a long way down the track. I asked myself the question and I've obviously got a range of experts giving me advice on this from within my department and also around the world, but the question I ask myself is if in 25 or 30 years time we look back and say 'Gee, the elephant population is now (…inaudible…)', it's down to 35,000 now across the 15 counties, it's diminishing rapidly. If you got to a point where it was down to just a few thousand as we saw with the whale populations with the destruction from whaling; it's a bit late in 25 or 30 years time for people to say 'Gee whiz. I just wish we'd done a bit of this captive breeding and I just wish we'd done this program'. And I think you need a whole range of measures to help save these elephants. I think you do need a lot of work on the ground in helping the Thai Government and other Asian Government's to protect habitat, to protect the natural environment for the elephants. You need mitigation measures to try to stop the conflicts between farmers and elephants. Elephants quite naturally come in and raid farms and pluck the nice pickings from vegetable gardens. These are all the issues; they're very real issues and I think that the co-operative conservation program that the zoos have put forward is a really constructive way that Australians can get deeply involved in this important conservation exercise.

What do you say about their fundamental argument which was that really the zoos only want these elephants to draw crowds and they're sort of hiding behind a breeding program?

I've had a close look at those claims both at the Melbourne Zoo and at the Taronga Zoo, and if you look at the figures it just doesn't stack up. It'd be interesting to hear from the Perth Zoo there (…inaudible…) what you find when you get a new exhibition I think you and the listeners would understand this, when you get a new exhibition you naturally get more interest and you might get people through your door. There's always a spike when they have a new exhibit but it always levels off and these zoos between them are spending tens of millions of dollars to make sure that they deliver for the elephants the very best world class environment for them to live in and breed in and you simply by a relatively small spike in attendances early on simply can't recover it, and I don't think there's any commercial aspect to this at all; I've convinced myself of that. This is a fair dinkum research co-operative conservation program; it'll create long-term links between Australia and Thailand and other Asian nations; it will have us deeply involved in the conservation of elephants for generations to come. When you bring out eight elephants it's a long-term commitment. It's more than a lifetime; it's a generational thing. And this decision today will involve Australia deeply in elephant conservation in out region for generations to come.

Okay, Ian, I know you've got a meeting to go to. Thanks for talking to us.

Thank you, Paul.

Senator Ian Campbell, the Federal Minister for the Environment, and his side of the argument there. It is going to be tested in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal so the arguments will be run there.

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