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  — 

Seventeen elephants flown out of Swaziland on a chartered plane are now in their new home country – the United States.

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.

‘A rescue mission’

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

The zoos defended the transfer, saying the animals were set to be killed to make room for rhinos at the Swaziland facilities. The country is also undergoing a drought.

“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 three U.S. zoos will donate funds toward the rhino conservation efforts at Big Game Parks.

The elephants’ ages range from 6 to 25

An outcry and a lawsuit

Conservationists have scrambled to stop the relocation, saying moving the elephants from the natural setting of the game reserve 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 the move

The zoos have said the animals faced certain death at home and are better off in the United States.

“There are those who would rather see elephants die than live in accredited zoos. We strongly disagree with that position,” Hudson said.

He said the Dallas facilities are spacious enough for the giant animals to roam and forage.