AZA Elephant Programs

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By Martha Fischer

In the past three decades, the African elephant population has suffered a precipitous decline from an estimated 1.3 million animals in the 1970s to now perhaps only 472,000-to-690,000 animals in 37 countries. Historically, the decline of wild African elephants was due primarily to rampant poaching for the ivory trade. Today, the African elephant is a threatened species that is at risk outside of protected areas where it continues to suffer from degradation of its habitat and competition for resources with domestic livestock. Layered on those conservation challenges, poaching is still a significant problem for the African elephant and because of the rapidly increasing human population in Africa, human-elephant conflict has also become a serious concern.

While the rate of decline for the endangered Asian elephants in this same timeframe is lower, the wild population – estimated today to be between 40,000 to 50,000 animals – is much smaller to start and is scattered across 13 countries. Loss of habitat to the growing human population and the increasing commercial demand for forest-derived products have tragically reduced the range for this species and increased the incidence of human-elephant conflict to an alarming level.

As the wild elephant populations continue to decline in both Africa and Asia, AZA zoos have an obligation as stewards of a part of the world’s natural heritage to care for the ex-situ elephant populations in a humane and scientific manner and to support in-situ elephant conservation programs in Africa and Asia to ensure the survival of both species for future generations in our zoos and in the wild. Zoos also have a unique opportunity to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge about elephants by participating in research on animal welfare, health, general physiology, nutrition, behavior and reproduction of their zoo elephant herds. Educational programs in zoos serve to promote conservation efforts on behalf of elephants and their habitats.

Six years ago, AZA elephant care facilities made a collaborative commitment to work in unified partnership to enhance the long-range plan for elephant care, management, conservation and research in AZA and in range countries. And in the last six years, we collaboratively have made significant strides as a result of this collaborative AZA elephant care and conservation movement – progress for which AZA Elephant TAG/SSP institutions should be, individually and collectively, proud.

This year has been a busy year for AZA Board of Directors, AZA Staff, the AZA Elephant TAG/SSP and the 73 AZA institutions with elephants, but our teamwork is paying off and a lot of activities to benefit elephants are ongoing with the support of AZA institutions.

Starting the year off in January, more than 80 participants from five countries, including veterinarians, virologists, epidemiologists, elephant care specialists and administrators gathered to provide updates on critical ongoing Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) research and to reaffirm their commitment to unraveling the epidemiology of this disease at a CBSG-facilitated workshop hosted by the Houston Zoo, the International Elephant Foundation and the Elephant Managers Association. The Strategic Plan that resulted outlines future goals in broad areas of research, disease detection and treatment, public relations and fund raising.

In February, The African elephant and Asian elephant Species Survival Plan® (SSP) populations were analyzed with the help of the Population Management Center, and Breeding and Transfer Plans were developed and shared with SSP partners. Also in February, the sustainability of both elephant populations was analyzed using ZooRisk, a demographic modeling program. With the help of the Lincoln Park Zoo and PMC teams, the TAG/SSP Steering Committee evaluated the future of these populations and outlined the combination of management actions that AZA institutions will need to implement to reverse or slow the current population declines. Technical reports were shared with AZA institutions with elephants.

The 16th AZA’s Principles of Elephant Management course was conducted in February, a course which provides elephant caretakers and managers the foundation they need develop and maintain a safe, comprehensive and proactive elephant care programs at their zoos. Over 400 AZA elephant care professionals have taken this excellent training course since 1995.

In March, the AZA Board of Directors approved the Revised AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care which were later distributed to all AZA institutions with elephants. These revisions will become a part of the AZA Accreditation and Certification Standards in 2012. Also in March, the 3rd edition of the Elephant TAG/SSP Regional Collection Plan, a living document which the TAG/SSP prepares to help AZA institutions plan for their future with elephants, was approved for five years by WCMC.

As successful future in elephant conservation and care in AZA zoos requires an action plan for success, and so in May, the Elephant TAG/SSP Steering Committee, Advisors and several invited guests updated the AZA Strategic Plan for Elephants which outlines our goals for the next five years. Also in May, the AZA Board of Directors convened a special meeting of Directors and Elephant Managers of AZA institutions with elephants to discuss maximizing occupational safety of elephant care professionals.

It is recognized that AZA institutions provide a tremendous amount of support through financial and human resources to elephant conservation. In June, the AZA Elephant Conservation Support survey was conducted and the results for last year indicate that AZA institutions provided an impressive $1,000,000 plus to in-situ elephant conservation in 2010. Also in June, an update of the Elephant Exhibit Design Resource update was initiated. This comprehensive TAG/SSP resource has proven to be very useful and includes elephant exhibit and facility design information that AZA members can use when renovating or building new elephant exhibits and barns.

In July the first phase of the IMLS-supported project Using Science to Understand Zoo Elephant Welfare was launched. AZA’s institutions with elephants are collaborating on this ground-breaking research project which will provide zoos with new information that will contribute to their ongoing efforts to ensure the well-being of AZA’s elephants.

The TAG/SSP co-sponsored a workshop on the Management and Research Priorities of Tuberculosis for Elephants in Human Care in early August, in partnership with the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, Elephant Managers Association, Fort Worth Zoo, International Elephant Foundation and the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation. The Strategic Plan that resulted outlines future goals in broad areas of research, TB testing and treatment and public relations.

Also in August, the AZA Board of Directors developed and distributed a new policy regarding Maximizing Occupational Safety of Elephant Care Professionals at AZA-accredited and AZA-certified Facilities to maximize the safety of elephant care staff, while continuing to advance the care and welfare of elephants.

We all headed to Atlanta in September, and the TAG/SSP invited all interested parties to participate in an open reporting meeting at the AZA Annual Conference. A paper session on elephants entitled Sustaining elephants with positive welfare in zoos was also offered during the Annual Conference with talks on a variety of elephant-related topics including population sustainability, welfare and reproduction.

And it cannot go unmentioned that, in addition to the above activities, AZA institutions have also facilitated 12 SSP-recommended transfers, opened nine newly constructed barns and/or habitats, celebrated five SSP-recommended elephant births (three African; two Asian) and rescued three female African elephants from Botswana all in the first ten months of 2011.

That brings us to today. We hope you enjoy this AZA CONNECT magazine and its special focus on elephants. Although it was impossible to provide a full article on everything, we tried to capture as much as possible of the great ex-situ and in-situ elephant-related activities supported by AZA elephant care institutions.

Martha Fischer is the Curator of Mammals/Ungulates and Elephants at the St. Louis Zoo and the Chair of the Elephant TAG/SSP