UPDATED | February 16, 2016 11:45 AM

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WICHITA, Kan. (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — Last month it was the group ‘In Defense of Animals’ that decried actions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that put a plan in motion allowing more than a dozen young African elephants to be shipped to the Dallas Zoo and two other U.S. zoos.

Now, an animal rights group has sued to stop those zoos, in Dallas, Kansas and Nebraska, from bringing the animals to the United States. Each zoo is set to accept six elephants. The herd is to include 15 females and 3 males.

The Wichita Eagle reports that the Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit last week in federal court against the USFWS.

Last month, the agency issued permits allowing the importation of 18 African elephants from Swaziland. The elephants would be divided among the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas and the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska. The three zoos agreed to spend $450,000 over several years on black rhino conservation.

In response to the legal action the Dallas Zoo and the two other wild animal facilities said they were “disappointed and concerned that an activist group has filed a lawsuit” to challenge the permit.

A statement from the Dallas Zoo said, in part, –

“The zoos are collaborating with conservationists in Swaziland to relocate elephants that have outgrown space in privately operated wildlife parks. At the same time, severe drought conditions in the region have created a scarcity of food, and increased competition for what little is left. The drought threatens not only the elephants, but a population of critically endangered black rhinos that are managed by the parks and naturally compete with elephants for the same food sources.
Due to space and resource challenges in the country, the animals will be culled (slaughtered) if not relocated.

The environmental lawsuit argues the service did not take into account how the transfer would negatively hurt the social, mental and physical well-being of the 18 elephants. The African elephant is the earth’s largest land animal.

Gregg Hudson, the president/CEO of the Dallas Zoo, said, “Collectively, we have received thousands of messages of support for our efforts to provide these elephants a safe home. While some people would rather see these elephants die than live in an accredited zoo, we strongly disagree.”

In Defense of Animals said the elephants were being “kidnapped from the wild and their families” to be shipped to the U.S.

“Studies show elephants in zoos suffer higher early-onset illness, unusually high mortality and lower reproductive rates,” said Toni Frohoff, Ph.D., elephant scientist for In Defense of Animals. “Zoo captivity fails miserably to allow elephants to thrive, let alone successfully reproduce. There is no excuse for taking these incredible animals from their natural homes to restock zoos.”

In Defense has dubbed the zoos in Dallas, Kansas and Nebraska the ‘terrible trio,’ and the group has split the position as the #1 worst zoo for elephants among the three.

Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) also blasted the USFWS for allowing the import of the elephants. They issued the following statement –

“This is a shameful transfer of young elephants who were taken from their families for commercial purposes, an elephant slave trade. As PETA earlier pointed out to federal authorities, elephants are intelligent, social, and wide-ranging animals who need to be in the wild, not separated from their closely knit families and displayed inside small enclosures where they will almost certainly suffer from trauma, stress, aggression, and chronic disease and die prematurely. Baby-elephant displays boost zoos’ ticket sales at the animals’ expense, and it’s shameful for the authorities to approve of this money-grubbing plan to send once-free African elephants to endure a life of captivity in American zoos.”

It was this time last year when the Dallas Safari Club planned to auction a 12-day African elephant hunt in Cameroon, but the hunting club cancelled the auction after the donor of the hunt withdrew his donation.

The Dallas Safari Club is the same group that was criticized for auctioning off an endangered African black rhino hunt in 2014.

As for the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Dallas Zoo officials say “delaying tactics” could compromise their efforts to provide the 18 elephants with a safe haven and secure future.

(©2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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