Contributing to the Conservation of Elephants at Home and in the Wild
After a 688-day gestation, the Saint Louis Zoo’s Asian elephant family welcomed a new member this past spring. The female calf, named Priya, weighed 251 pounds at birth and is the third daughter for 42-year-old-mother, Ellie. Priya’s father is 20-year-old, Raja.
The Saint Louis Zoo has been caring for, breeding and studying elephants under the guidance of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Elephant Species Survival Plan® (SSP) since its inception, and Priya’s birth is the result of a recommended pairing based on genetic and demographic data. Giving birth is a very natural occurrence for female elephants in the wild and in zoos, and the Saint Louis Zoo is now caring for a growing multi-generational elephant family in a way that encourages the expression of the full range of elephant behavior and the development of a social structure mirroring that found in the wild. The tight-knit, three-generation family offers many diverse and enriching social opportunities for the elephants including play, mentoring, socializing with the opposite sex and collaborative rearing of the family’s youngest elephants. The Saint Louis Zoo’s Asian elephant family includes three generations ranging from newborn to 42 years of age – one adult male, five adult females, three juvenile females and one newborn female.
Pearl (42) grandmother to all of the Zoo’s younger elephants, has lived at the Saint Louis Zoo for most of her life. Her son, Raja, was the first elephant born at the Zoo in 1992. Ellie helps Pearl lead the family herd. She is mother to Rani (18) Maliha (7) and newborn Priya, as well as grandmother to Jade (6), and Kenzi (2). Extended family members, Donna (42) and Sri (33) have an important support role in the family and serve as friends and mentors.
AZA-accredited elephant care facilities have a unique opportunity to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge about elephants. Currently, the Saint Louis Zoo is participating in many elephant-related research projects focused on improving the health, nutrition, care and welfare of elephants in human care and in the wild, including in-depth studies of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus, or EEHV, a virus that can affect elephant calves in zoos and in the wild.
Long before the Zoo’s bull elephant, Raja, became a father for the first time, the Zoo was providing funding, labor and samples to support ongoing EEHV research, and this support continues to this day. The Zoo is proud that the observations and studies of the elephants at the Saint Louis Zoo are adding to the growing body of scientific data on elephants and are contributing to global conservation efforts on behalf of the species as a whole. The Zoo also provides annual financial support for the operation of the National EEHV Lab which is based at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
The Saint Louis Zoo’s conservation efforts may begin at home with the ten elephants in its care, but the Zoo’s conservation efforts also extend all the way to Asia and Africa to ensure a future for elephants worldwide. The situation for wild elephants in range countries is extremely concerning. African elephants are being slaughtered by the hundreds for their ivory by out-of-control poaching. Asian elephants are being evicted from their homes by the rapidly growing human population as forests are turned into farmland.
With the situation for wild elephants so precarious, those who truly care about elephants have an obligation to take action before it is too late. The Saint Louis Zoo continues to answer this call to action by providing funding and other resources to elephant conservation in multiple ways all around the world. The Saint Louis Zoo supports Asian elephant conservation efforts in Sumatra and other countries in Asia and Indonesia, as well as African elephant conservation efforts in Kenya and Mali.
The Zoo provides annual financial support to the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), a non-profit conservation organization that has devoted over two million dollars to elephant conservation to date. Nearly a decade of support has been provided to elephants in Sumatra to improve the care and welfare of elephants in camps through improved veterinary care, nutrition and elephant care training for mahouts. Wild Sumatran elephants are protected by Conservation Response Units using these camp elephants to help monitor and protect wildlife and forests in and around the Kerinci Seblat National Park. Also through IEF, the Zoo has funded elephant conservation projects benefitting Asian elephants in Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Since 2004, the Saint Louis Zoo has supported community-based conservation in Kenya, which restores habitat and provides protection to all the wildlife found in this community conservancy, including African elephants. The Zoo’s collaboration with the Northern Rangelands Trust has helped create a mosaic of 26 such conservancies working together to re-establish conservation areas for wildlife and restore historical migration routes for elephants. A decade ago, when the Saint Louis Zoo first began supporting the Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy to create a protected wildlife area, African elephants were the first footprints found around the newly constructed waterhole, and they continue to regularly visit to this day. The Zoo’s support for African elephants doesn’t stop at the Kenyan border – active support is provided to an emerging community-based desert elephant conservation program in war-torn Mali, providing critical funds to help protect the northernmost population of African elephants.
The Saint Louis Zoo shares a common vision with other professional elephant conservation organizations and with its elephant care colleagues – a vision that includes elephants in the world’s future forever, both in zoos and in the wild. For more information on the Saint Louis Zoo and its elephant conservation programs, please visit www.stlzoo.org.
Guest blogger: Martha Fischer, Curator of Mammals at the Saint Louis Zoo.