African elephants are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

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The giant animals' ages range from 6 to 25

They'll be the newest residents at zoos in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska

CNN  — 

Swaziland’s plan to relocate 18 elephants to three American zoos is sparking condemnation from some conservationists.

The elephants, from a game reserve run by nonprofit Big Game Parks, landed in Fort Worth, Texas, over the weekend aboard the cargo plane.

Before their departure from Swaziland, the giant animals were sedated and loaded onto crates for the long flight.

On arrival, five were transferred to the Dallas Zoo under police escort.

The remaining 12 are the newest residents of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.

In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved their relocation to the three facilities amid an outcry from conservationists.

‘A rescue mission’

The animals were set to be culled as part of a plan to make room for rhinos at the Swaziland facilities, the zoos said in a statement.

“It escalated to a rescue mission last fall due to this state-of-emergency drought,” said Gregg Hudson, president of Dallas Zoo.

In exchange for the elephants, the U.S. zoos will donate funds toward the rhino conservation efforts at the Big Game Parks.

The elephants’ ages range from 6 to 25

Outcry

The plan has sparked an outcry from conservationists and rights groups, who say relocating the giant animals to zoos half a world away is detrimental to their health.

Friends of Animals, which is based in Connecticut, said it had contested the move in court, and a hearing was scheduled for Thursday.

It accused the zoos of sneaking the elephants out of the African nation under the cover of darkness to avoid a lawsuit.

The Dallas Zoo described the accusation as “outlandish” and said the activist group Friday withdrew its request for a preliminary injunction.

Zoos defend move

Despite the controversy, the zoos plan to provide homes for the elephants.

“Our zoos are committed to the safe future of these elephants,” said Gregg Hudson, president of the Dallas Zoo.

He said the zoos will ensure that elephants in the same social circles remain together. Their facilities are spacious enough for the giant animals to roam and forage, the zoos said.

The wildlife service said elephants have been relocated by air from Swaziland to the United States before. It’s unclear when the 18 elephants will make the trip.