Our first elephants
Empress and Queenie were the San Diego Zoo’s first elephants, arriving here in 1923 via train from San Francisco. After being led off the train, the two Asian elephants refused to move another step, no matter how much encouragement they received. The Zoo’s founder, Harry Wegeforth, M.D., was there to greet them, and it occurred to him that they were probably used to being ridden, so he climbed up on Empress and another staff member did the same with Queenie, and off they walked from the train station to the Zoo, gathering many astonished looks along the way!
Peaches was the San Diego Zoo’s first African elephant—and she made sure to be a memorable one, too. When she arrived in 1953, she was three years old, smart, curious, and, as then ZOONOOZ editor Ken Stott described her, “playful as a quarter-ton kitten.” She had made the journey from Africa to San Diego with keeper Ralph “Gabe” Davis, and they got along famously—at least most of the time. When Gabe gave her breakfast, she would grumble and trumpet at him until he left her alone to eat—apparently, she was not sociable in the morning. She also showed a marked preference for men, even pushing away Zoo Executive Director Belle Benchley when she tried to say hello. Peaches did become more mellow as she grew up, but even as an adult, she still had a way of “flirting” with men while more often than not giving women a cool stare.
Since that time, we've had numerous elephants at our two facilities, and our first elephant birth occurred in 1981. In 1971, Asian elephant Carol became famous by appearing on The Tonight Show with the Zoo’s animal ambassador Joan Embery, to meet Johnny Carson and paint for him while millions watched nationwide!
The Zoo’s elephants
Today, five elephants live in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey habitat. Its features include the state-of-the-art Elephant Care Center, which is helpful, as our herd is made up of older, non-breeding elephants at this time. Two of them—Mary and Devi—are Asian elephants and three of them—Tembo, Shaba, and Mila—are African bush elephants.
Tembo (Swahili for elephant) has lived at the Zoo for much of her life. Before we adopted her, she was an animal actor, and appeared in the TV series Born Free as—you guessed it—a baby elephant! We think she was born around 1972, and her official birthday is the first of January. In fact, most of our elephants have the same birthday. As most were orphaned or rescued in the wild, we can only estimate their ages. So, we use the same system as racehorse owners. On New Year's Day, they all officially become a year older!
The Safari Park's elephants
At the Safari Park, a herd of seven African elephants, born in Kruger National Park in South Africa in 1991, was translocated to Swaziland in 1994. Yet just a few years later, they were scheduled to be culled due to overpopulation. Fortunately, the herd instead was brought to San Diego on a truly "jumbo" plane in August 2003. A fellow herd-mate from Africa followed in October 2009, by way of the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida. These elephants are one of the most genetically valuable African elephant herds in North America. Since their arrival at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, their numbers have grown. The success of this group at the Safari Park helped earn us the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ 2014 award for significantly enhancing the conservation of a species.
In March 2012, five of those elephants were moved to the Reid Park Zoo in Arizona to start a new herd. Today, the Safari Park is home to 13 African bush elephants: 5 adults and 8 calves of varying ages. Our newest calf, Qinisa, was born on August 28, 2012.
Taking care of our elephants
To best manage the elephants’ health at both the Zoo and the Safari Park, these behemoths are trained to present various body parts to keepers for inspection and care. Whether it is daintily presenting a foot, patiently standing parallel to the bars for a cleaning, or offering up their trunk for a saline flush, these animals are clearly highly cognizant and deserve the best care. As a species that has spent millions of years patrolling the parched African landscape following ancient mental maps to water sources, it’s no wonder that swimming pools and mud wallows are a big hit with our elephants. On warm days, guests can be treated to views of the Park’s younger elephants cavorting about in the pool, spraying each other with trunks full of water and horsing around with their friends in the sun.
Elephants both in the wild and in zoos often rub their tusks against hard surfaces, which sometimes damages them. Elephant youngster Khosi, born at the Park in September 2006, wore down her tusks over time, so in 2011 our veterinary team performed a pulpotomy, which is like a root canal on a tusk, and then placed permanent stainless-steel caps on each of her tusks to prevent further wear. The procedure went well, thanks to intense planning, training and desensitizing the elephant, and collaboration among the Park’s keepers and veterinary staff.
At the Park, you may see some of the elephants wearing an anklet “accelerometer,” which is essentially a high-tech pedometer measuring step count and activity, as part of our Elephant Walking Study. Additionally, some of the elephants are trained to wear a collar around their neck that holds a GPS unit and a digital infrasonic recorder. This research will expand to the Zoo, and then to other zoos around the country to help us gather as much accurate activity and behavioral data as possible, which will ensure that elephants in zoos receive the best, most appropriate care possible.
Elephants have been hunted relentlessly for their tusks (even though they’re made of dentine, the same as our teeth). Elephants are now protected, but poachers still hunt them, and they face other problems, too. Because they are so big and need so much food, they can eat themselves out of “house and home.” Elephants and people often come into conflict as elephant habitats undergo dramatic reductions in size. Asian and African forest elephants are listed as endangered, primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation. African bush elephants are threatened, primarily due to habitat loss and being poached for their tusks.
San Diego Zoo Global is actively promoting the conservation of elephants through a variety of methods aimed at understanding elephant behavior and their reproductive biology in their natural habitats and in zoos. We can apply the knowledge we gain studying the elephants at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park to help sustain elephants in their native environments. In one multidisciplinary approach, our scientists record elephant auditory communication and behavior for a clearer understanding of the social dynamics of a herd and the relationship between mother and calf. In another, we’re recording and plotting calf weights as a measure of health.
To promote genetic diversity, we’re sharing bull elephant semen with other facilities in an effort to enhance the gene pool of managed populations. To further reproductive success, we are monitoring hormones to uncover the details of the complex estrous cycle of elephants. At the Safari Park, we are studying how many miles our elephants move each day by having select individuals wear specially designed pedometers. Eventually, results will be compared between individual animals, zoos, and even what has been documented in nature to see if zoo elephants get enough exercise.
We continue to financially support field conservation efforts in Swaziland and are working with the Northern Rangelands Trust to preserve large tracts of land in Kenya and helping local ecologists and rangers reduce human-elephant conflict in the area. In the past, we have partnered with the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, where Asian elephants are managed in conditions very similar to that of their wild counterparts.
The small country of Botswana is home to the largest contiguous wild elephant population remaining on the African continent. San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with the nonprofit Elephants Without Borders (EWB) to delve further into research to answer questions about elephants, their behavior, and the best ways to help conserve them. Blood samples from wild elephants have been taken to our labs for ongoing genetic studies; fecal samples are collected for analysis of diet and stress in elephant populations throughout their range to possibly determine health conditions and motivation for elephant travels.
Elephants Without Borders has been deploying satellite-monitoring collars on elephants throughout northern Botswana since 2000, having tracked over 90 individual elephants; this is one of the longest and largest elephant movement studies in Africa. Every individual pachyderm has its unique character and intriguing story to his or her own seasonal march, preferred routes, and favored places. Each new elephant fitted with a tracking device provides new information to understand the ecology of these animals. Unpredictable individual ranging behavior coupled with a dynamic, ever-changing environment in Botswana underscore the need for long-term elephant studies. The elephants are tracked from a fixed-wing plane, which allows a visual assessment of collared elephants to determine herd structure and habitat use.
In collaboration with San Diego Zoo Global, Elephants Without Borders has established a conservation farming project in the Chobe Enclave in Botswana. This project is developing experimental plots with various methods of keeping elephants away from crops, including farming of specific chili species that are thought to be unpalatable to elephants and may deter them from invading crop areas. Along with aerial survey wildlife counts and satellite-collared elephant data, these projects are essential for developing community-based conservation programs to reduce human-elephant conflict and make better-informed conservation decisions for all.
In addition, San Diego Zoo Global has developed anesthesia techniques that are used at other zoos and in the wild and is a member of the International Elephant Foundation. All of these efforts help us and other zoos continue to provide the highest level of care for our elephants and to assist elephants in the wild.