UPDATED | March 11, 2016 9:11 AM

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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – In North Texas, airline flights come and go. But just after midnight Friday, a specially-designed 747 landed with some very unique cargo. There were 17 elephants aboard the airplane. They were transported all the way from Swaziland to Alliance Airport in Fort Worth on a more than 10-hour flight.

This is no spring vacation. The elephants then traveled to new homes at three separate zoos. Five of them were loaded onto flatbed trucks and driven to the Dallas Zoo. The other 12 elephants will be divided between the zoos in Wichita, Kansas and Omaha, Nebraska. All of the zoos have built special habitats for the animals.

After a highway journey from north Fort Worth to south Dallas, the elephants arrived safely at the Dallas Zoo shortly before 10:00 a.m. on Friday morning. They were followed the entire way by a police escort, which kept other vehicles away.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued permits in January allowing the importation.

Zoo officials said that the elephants were in an overpopulated wildlife park and in danger of dying from the severe drought. Initially, 18 elephants were to be make the trip, but one died of a gastrointestinal illness before the journey began.

(credit: CBSDFW.COM)

(credit: CBSDFW.COM)

The transfer from Dakar, Senegal to America, a logistic puzzle through many governments and agencies, was months in the making. But animal rights activists are calling the move to zoos inhumane. In Defense of Animals said that the elephants were being “kidnapped from the wild and their families” to be shipped here. Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have also blasted the USFWS for allowing the import of the elephants.

In Defense of Animals has dubbed the zoos in Dallas, Kansas and Nebraska the “terrible trio,” and the group has split the position as the No. 1 worst zoo for elephants among the three.

Friends of Animals filed a federal lawsuit to try and stop the USFWS permits, but the court ruled in favor of the zoos last week.

In an online statement, Dallas Zoo officials said, in part:

“We are outraged at claims by animal extremists that these elephants were moved suddenly to circumvent their misguided efforts to delay this move via a lawsuit. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We could not stand by and let activists endanger the lives of these elephants with delaying tactics. The well-being of these animals is more important to us than anything, and we are thankful that a federal judge agreed.

In addition to moving the elephants from what they call a “devastating drought,” all three zoos have also agreed to spend $450,000, over several years, on black rhino conservation.

Preparations for the final stage of the trip were made in secret, the Dallas Zoo said, to protect the animals and their caretakers from anyone who may want to potentially do them harm.

All of the recently transported elephants reportedly arrived safe and are in good health. The animals will be on display in a new, state-of-the-art Dallas Zoo habitat, but not right away. Zoo officials said that they will be in a 30-day quarantine first, just to make sure that the transition goes smoothly and the animals remain healthy.

It was this time last year when the Dallas Safari Club, which is in no way associated with the Dallas Zoo, planned to auction a 12-day African elephant hunt in Cameroon, but the hunting club canceled 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.

(©2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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