Published June 11, 2012
PUEBLA, Mexico – It was the stuff of a major film studio's next animation project: Nine African baby elephants orphaned after their parents were poached, but then miraculously rescued to a wild game park in Latin America. In the highlands of central Mexico, pee wee pachyderms the size of Volkswagen Beetles could wander around, wide-eyed as they munched on tortillas and donned sombreros in their new home.
Except that the government of Namibia, where they came from, says it didn't happen that way.
The nine elephants that made a big media splash last week lumbering off a cargo plane, on their way to a reserve in Puebla, were the result of a commercial sale. Despite reports to the contrary, the creatures had never been truly, fully free. They also aren't babies, but youngsters ranging from 4 to 10 years old, said Boas Erkki, deputy director at the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
The elephants were sold by the original owner, a farm, to the Namib Game Services private reserve and their mothers were not poached, Erkki told The Associated Press on Monday. The Namib Game Services sold the animals because they didn't have enough space to keep them, he said.
Even without the poachers, the elephants had a pretty good tale. They spent 24 hours in tight quarters as they flew over the Atlantic in a chartered jet. They had stopovers in Brazil and Chile. Then a two-hour truck drive to the city of Puebla before they arrived at their new home at Africam Safari, a 900-acre wildlife preserve whose name is a combination of Africa and the family name of the park's owner — Frank Carlos Camacho.
The delivery was the brainchild of Camacho, whose preserve is just south of Mexico City.
The unlikely African acquisition began when Debbie Olson, director of the International Elephant Foundation based outside Fort Worth, Texas, learned of nine young elephants in Namibia that needed a new home. She put out the word to her board of directors, which includes Camacho.
Camacho had always planned to add a couple of elephants to his wildlife preserve, where ostriches, lemurs, giraffes, zebras and monkeys roam in spacious containment areas to the delight of visitors.
What appeared to be a marketer's dream come true soon soured, when the government of Namibia complained that news reports wrongly said the elephants were orphaned and Camacho was rescuing them.
Camacho denies telling journalists that the elephants' parents were killed by poachers. But he did use the term "rescue" and that has proved controversial.
"In no way can this export be considered to be a 'rescue' mission, nor were these elephants orphans," said a Namibian government press release. "These young elephants were in good condition at the time of leaving Namibia and were not at risk of being destroyed by this Ministry."
Camacho said he learned that the private preserve was offering up the animals because it was too small to maintain them. In May, Camacho flew to central Namibia to check out his little herd, and discovered they already had become a family.
The oldest elephant, about 10, is the size of a minivan and had been nicknamed "Big Boy" — clearly the leader of the pack. The youngest, "Chico," or "Little Boy," is 4 years old. The pack included one other male and six females.
The next step, getting them to Mexico, turned out not to be that difficult. Camacho successfully navigated through two government bureaucracies. He chartered a plane big enough for his precious cargo.
Getting them onto the plane was another matter.
"It would have been much harder if they were adults," said Cecilia Geiger, a spokeswoman for Africam Safari. The elephants obediently boarded on their own, with Big Boy leading the smaller ones up a ramp and into the cargo bay, where the elephants were put in big crates.
Camacho accompanied them, listening to the elephant chatter as they crossed the Atlantic.
"We could all feel that they had a special connection," he said.
During a reporter's visit Friday, the herd looked happy enough, playing outside in a huddle near a muddy watering pool, tossing sand with their skinny trunks, their white tusk buds barely visible. Eventually, those buds could grow into 8-foot long tusks. The elephants will grow two times their current size.
"Elephants can do just fine on their own as long as people can substitute for other elephants," said Ted Friend, professor of animal behavior at Texas A&M University. In captivity, a human trainer usually takes on the necessary role of the female elephant, he said.
As for the nine elephants at Camacho's zoo, Friend sees no problem with their environment. "It'll be a little different than what they would have had in the wild, but in a situation where they're controlled by people, then I don't see a problem."
While the Namibian government said the elephants are not orphans, and did not grow up in the wild, their origins remain a mystery. It isn't clear where the elephants' parents are, or even if any of the nine are related.
There is only one way to find out, Camacho said. He pointed at his elephants.
"You have to ask them," he said.
Associated Press writer Armando Montano reported this story in Puebla and Emoke Bebiak reported from Johannesburg, South Africa.