Carrie Johnson’s charity is at the centre of a diplomatic row over plans to rewild elephants in Kenya. 

A project by the charity to rewild the elephants from a Kent wildlife park to Kenya has been thrown into doubt after the Kenyan government said it had not been told about it.

Earlier this week, Kent-based charity the Aspinall Foundation announced plans, described as a "world first", to fly a herd of 13 elephants, including three calves, from the UK to Kenya. The charity said two different sites were under consideration, "both of which provide the perfect natural conditions for the elephants".

But on Wednesday the Kenyan ministry of tourism and wildlife said the announcement had been "noted with concern". 

"The Ministry wants to state that neither them nor the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has been contacted or consulted on this matter," a statement said. "Relocation and rehabilitation of an animal from a zoo is not easy and is an expensive affair."

Mrs Johnson, who married the Prime Minister in May, became head of communications at the conservation charity in January. In her first article as "first lady", she wrote in The Sun that it was "overwhelmingly better" for the animals to be in the wild. 

Boris and Carrie Johnson married in May

Credit: Rebecca Fulton/ via AP

On Wednesday night, a spokesman for the Aspinall Foundation said it was "perplexed" by the statement and that it had been in contact with the Kenya Wildlife Service throughout the planning of the project.

But Dr Patrick Omondi, principal scientist at Kenya Wildlife Service, told The Telegraph the relocation was still "at the concept stage". 

A "concept note", which needed to be submitted in order for the project to be approved, was only received by the service on Tuesday evening after it had been publicly announced, he said. 

"Before we even received a concept we received a story saying that there is a partnership, animals are coming into Kenya," Dr Omondi added. "So it has been done prematurely, it is at the concept stage. No approval has been given.

"They have to get permission from the government of Kenya. I am the lead scientist of wildlife research. Once I approve it the cabinet secretary responsible will table it in the cabinet for final approval. That process has not even started.

"We as a country prefer African animals to be in the wild, but since they have been kept in a zoo rewilding is not an easy process, so it will require a detailed assessment with national and international elephant experts. It’s not just waking up and saying we are moving elephants to Kenya."

Earlier, the plan had come under fire from Prof Keith Somerville, of the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, who called it "an expensive, stressful and potentially risky procedure that will get lots of media attention but do nothing of value for elephant conservation".

"Kenya does not need more elephants," he said. "Money should be invested into projects that help mitigate human-elephant conflict, not into flying elephants around the globe to likely die in the wild, to which they are totally unaccustomed."

Responding to the criticism, the Aspinall Foundation said it was aware of the risk but added: "The attention and conservation benefits warrant that risk. On a conservation basis, elephants don’t belong in the UK."