elephant model

The Knoxville Zoo in Knoxville, Tennessee, faced a dilemma in planning the long-term welfare of resident African elephants Tonka, 44, Gana, 42, and Eddie, 39. One day, they’ll be too old to travel. Faced with the fact that at least one beloved elephant will end up alone in the next few years if they stay, the zoo made the difficult decision to send the three elephants to the Elephant Sanctuary, in Hohenwald, Tennessee, an association of zoos and a related facility certified by Aquariums five hours away. Just.

An Asian elephant swimming in the water with its trunk above its head

Image source: Lou Alexandre

“Although each elephant is unique, Zoo Knoxville elephants are social and attached to one another. To be proactive and strategic, we began looking for opportunities for socialization as they got older,” said Lisa New, President and CEO of the Knoxville Zoo, Who wanted to act while they were all healthy enough to move on. “This was in their best interest. The Elephant Sanctuary currently has several other elephants as potential companions as our young herd faces inevitable losses in the future. Being an AZA-certified related facility, which guarantees the same gold standard of care, short travel distance, and availability of other potential social companions is The reason we made this decision.

The elephant care team worked with the AZA Elephant Classification Advisory Group and Species Survival Plan® to identify options that met their criteria, then unanimously agreed that this was the best option for the welfare of the herd. Soon, the Knoxville Zoo will be without elephants.

“We didn’t want to split these animals because they are so compatible with each other. And while our facilities meet current certification standards, they are outdated. Even if we had the funding to build a new facility right now, the timing isn’t right because with the aging elephant demographics in AZA, no There are new elephants readily available to bring in.” She said. “Our zoo is not the only one facing this kind of decision in the next few years.”

Facing challenges

The AZA Board of Directors has established a task force to address the technical and adaptive challenges involved in managing elephants. One working group on the task force focuses solely on paradigm shifts to address fundamental changes in ideology, including core approaches and assumptions. Paradigm shifts are adaptive challenges, not technical problems. A technical problem can be resolved by broken, dried-out solutions or mandates. Inconvenient adjustment challenges. People often shy away from them because the solutions are rarely simple.

“Adaptation challenges are hard to deal with, because they don’t have known solutions,” said Robin Keith, president and CEO of EcoLeaders, an environmental leadership consultant. Adaptation challenges require changes in how people work together, in people’s beliefs or values, in relationships, or roles.

African elephants standing by the water

Image source: Lou Alexandre

“One of the biggest signs that you are dealing with an adaptive challenge rather than a technical problem is that you keep applying technical solutions but the problem recurs. And that’s what we found with elephants and the sustainability of the population as a whole.”

The task force draws on community input to learn about current ideology and to help shape the future of elephants at AZA. There are a lot of luxury considerations. Should elephants only live in climates that mimic their habitats in the wild? Is it more beneficial for the species for zoos to raise or import elephants? What is the best way to deal with puffiness of the dermis in the elderly? What about herds of bulls?

“We can, and must, engage in all the sciences, and build the best habitats and social gatherings, but unless the community comes together and sees elephant management as a collective challenge that needs a unified solution, we will not succeed,” Candice said. Dorsey, Senior Vice President of Conservation Science, Management, and Welfare at the AZA.

As with all AZA SSP species, elephant management requires cooperation between the zoos that keep the elephants. Currently, inconsistencies in breeding practices and exhibit design have led to some reluctance when it comes to animating elephants. While everyone meets the AZA’s high standards for elephant care, most people agree that the bar must be continually evaluated and adjusted as society learns more. The goal is to reach optimum standards of elephant care so that the animals thrive in care.

“The challenge is to set global standards so that everyone feels comfortable that others will treat their elephants the same way they are treated,” Keith said. The irony here, is that this is an association made up of an incredibly diverse number of facilities operating in their local and regional contexts. A certain level of uniformity is important. But we also need to be able to allow for some individual differences.”

Asian elephant swimming in the water

Image source: © Oregon Zoo


One of the goals of a typical workgroup is to move people from an individual, facility-centric viewpoint to a group view. A paradigm shift can emphasize transparency across facilities, increased reproductive success, acquisitions, and improved healthcare (particularly when it comes to EEHV).

“I hope AZA will continue to increase the standards required. We are going to have to redefine what that means if you are going to be a holding institution in the future,” said Greg Hudson, president and CEO of the Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas.

The Dallas Zoo has a 12-acre property for its eight elephants, aged from five to mid-40s. There are several management philosophies that occur simultaneously due to the wide range of flock ages. The zoo started with a group of elderly elephants, then changed to a family dynamic when they acquired elephants that were due to be culled from Eswatini National Parks during a severe drought. This transformed the zoo again into a dynamic family herd and the zoo philosophy expanded. Now, they try to incorporate as much natural behavior as possible into the exhibits and prioritize maintaining the social dynamics in the collection. For example, elephants roam alongside giraffes and giraffes as they would in their natural habitat.

“It’s not just about the space now, it’s about what’s going on in that space. It has to be a gallery dynamic enough to engage the elephants and enrich their behaviour, to give them the motivation they need day in and day out.” “The double-edged sword is that this will likely mean that there will be fewer organizations that can afford that and invest resources in it. But I think that is part of that evolution, as there will be fewer organizations with larger groups in dynamic environments.”

way forward

Lauren Ripple, director of elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, believes that communication and higher standards are the way forward.

Many zoos excel in the various components of elephant management. We should evaluate each zoo, see where it excels and use those components as an example of how to manage elephants,” Ripple said. She would also like to see a master plan for each group of elephants.

African elephants walking in an exhibition

Image source: Dallas Zoo

There are eight African elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo, including Stephanie, 51 (who has been linked to the third oldest African elephant in North America) and Agani, 22 (the first African elephant born from artificial insemination) who is now part of a breeding herd. The zoo has also taken in some displaced Eswatini elephants along with Dallas.

Disseminating information at all levels is an important part of this solution, according to Ripple. If individual zoos discussed what was happening with more elephants, it would lead to a stronger sense of community and urgency.

“At Sedgwick, we do our best to watch any presentation available to us or discuss any conference a member of our team has attended. We not only pass on information, we take the time to sit down and discuss it as a team.

Elephants are complex animals. They are large, sensitive, intelligent and sociable. They have long gestation periods and a longer life span. We are constantly learning more about their needs and abilities, so caring for them is almost as complex. There is no doubt that elephants evoke emotions in people as few other species do. It can help create shifts in the ways people think about caring for elephants across AZA.

“If the task force is able to change the model for a sustainable population of elephants, that will be a model for many programmes,” Niu said. “Elephants are the most obvious, but we have many species that are challenged in terms of sustainability. We don’t have to learn this in a vacuum.”

Hero photo credit: © Oregon Zoo

Hilary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, New Jersey

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