Zoo Knoxville in Knoxville, Tenn., faced a dilemma in planning for the long-term wellbeing of resident African elephants Tonka, 44, Jana, 42, and Edie, 39. One day, they would be too old to travel. Faced with the reality that at least one of their beloved elephants would end up alone in the next few years if they stayed, the Zoo made the difficult decision to send all three to the Elephant Sanctuary, in Hohenwald, Tenn., an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-certified related facility only five hours away.
Photo Credit: Sedgwick County Zoo/ Lou Alexander
“Although every elephant is unique, Zoo Knoxville’s elephants are social and bonded to each other. To be proactive and strategic, we started to look for them to have opportunities for socialization as they age,” said Lisa New, president and chief executive officer of Zoo Knoxville, who wanted to act while they were all healthy enough to relocate. “This was in their best interest. The Elephant Sanctuary currently has several other elephants as potential companions as our small herd faces inevitable losses in the future. Being an AZA-certified related facility, which ensures the same gold standard of care, the short distance of travel, and the availability of other possible social companions is why we made that decision.”
The elephant care team worked with AZA’s Elephant Taxon Advisory Group and Species Survival Plan® to identify options that met their parameters, then unanimously agreed this was the best choice for the herd’s wellbeing. Soon, Zoo Knoxville will be without elephants.
“We did not want to split these animals up because they are compatible with each other. And while our facilities meet the current accreditation standards, they are becoming dated. Even if we had the funding to build a new facility right now, the timing isn’t right because with aging demographics of AZA’s elephant population, there aren’t new elephants readily available to bring in.” she said. “Our zoo isn’t the only one facing this kind of decision in the next few years.”
The AZA board of directors established a task force to address the technical and adaptive challenges involved in managing elephants. One working group in the task force focuses solely on paradigm shifts to address fundamental changes in ideology, including approaches and underlying assumptions. Paradigm shifts are adaptive challenges, not technical problems. A technical problem can be solved with cut and dried solutions or mandates. Adaptive challenges are uncomfortable. Often, people shy away from them because the solutions are rarely simple.
“Adaptive challenges are much harder to address, because they don’t have known solutions,” said Robin Keith, president and chief executive officer of EcoLeaders, an environmental leadership consultant. Adaptive challenges require changes in how people work together, in people’s beliefs or values, in relationships, or roles.
Photo Credit: Sedgwick County Zoo/ Lou Alexander
“One of the biggest signs that you’re dealing with an adaptive challenge rather than a technical problem is that you continue to apply technical fixes but the problem recurs. And that’s what we found with elephants and population sustainability as a whole,” she said.
The task force is relying on community input to get a handle on current ideology and to help shape the future of elephants in AZA. There are plenty of welfare considerations. Should elephants only live in climates that mimic their habitats in the wild? Is it more beneficial to the species for zoos to raise elephants or to import them? What’s the best way to handle geriatric pachyderms? What about bull herds?
“We can, and should, engage in all the science, and build the best habitats and social groupings, but unless the community unites and sees managing elephants as a collective challenge needing a united solution, we won’t be successful,” said Candice Dorsey, senior vice president of conservation, management, and welfare sciences at AZA.
As with all AZA SSP species, managing elephants requires collaboration among elephant holding zoos. Currently, the lack of consistency in husbandry practices and exhibit design has created some hesitancy when it comes to moving elephants. While everyone meets AZA’s high standards for elephant care, most people agree the bar should continually be evaluated and adjusted as the community learns more. The goal is to reach optimum standards of elephant care so that the animals are thriving in care.
“The challenge is setting universal standards so everybody feels comfortable that other people will treat their elephants the same way they would,” said Keith. “And the paradox there is, this is an association made up of an incredibly diverse number of facilities that are operating in their own local and regional contexts. Some level of standardization is important. But we also need to be able to allow for some individual variation.”
Photo Credit: © Oregon Zoo
One goal of the paradigm working group is to move people from an individual facility-centric view to a collectivist one. A paradigm shift could emphasize transparency across facilities, increased reproductive success, acquisitions, and enhanced healthcare (especially when it comes to EEHV).
“My hope is that AZA will continue to increase the standards that are required. We’re going to have to redefine what that means if you’re going to be a holding institution in the future,” said Gregg Hudson, president and chief executive officer of the Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas.
The Dallas Zoo has a 12-acre property for its eight elephants, ages five through mid-40s. There are several management philosophies happening simultaneously because of the herd’s wide range of ages. The Zoo started with a group of geriatric elephants, then changed to a family dynamic when they acquired elephants that were going to be culled from Eswatini national parks during a severe drought. This shifted the Zoo once again to more of a family dynamic herd and the Zoo’s philosophy expanded. Now, they’re trying to integrate as much natural behavior as possible into the exhibits and they prioritize maintaining social dynamics in the group. For example, the elephants roam alongside hoofstock and giraffes like they would in their natural habitats.
“It’s not just about space now, it’s about what happens in that space. It has to be a dynamic enough exhibit to engage the elephants and enrich their behavior, to give them stimulus that they need on a day in and day out basis,” he said. “The double-edged sword is, that will probably mean there will be fewer institutions that can afford that and put resources into that. But I think that’s part of this evolution, that it’s going to be fewer institutions with larger groups in dynamic habitats.”
A Way Forward
Lauren Ripple, elephant manager at Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., believes communication and higher standards are the way forward.
“Several zoos excel at different components of elephant management. We should evaluate each zoo, figure out where they excel and use those components as an example of how elephants could be managed,” said Ripple. She would also like to see a master plan for each elephant population.
Photo Credit: © Dallas Zoo
There are eight African elephants at Sedgwick County Zoo, including Stephanie, 51, (who is tied for the third-oldest African elephant in North America) and Ajani, 22, (the first male African elephant born from artificial insemination) who is now part of a breeding herd. The Zoo also acquired some of Eswatini’s displaced elephants alongside Dallas.
The dissemination of information at all levels is an important part of this solution, according to Ripple. If individual zoos discussed what was happening with the larger elephant population, it would lead to a stronger sense of community and urgency.
“At Sedgwick, we make the effort to watch any presentation available to us or discuss any conference that one of our team has attended. We don’t just pass on the information, we take the time to sit down and discuss it as a team,” she said.
Elephants are complex animals. They are large, sensitive, intelligent, and social. They have long gestational periods and longer life spans. We are constantly learning more about their needs and abilities, so their care is almost as complicated they are. Without a doubt, elephants stir up emotions in people like few other species can. Creating shifts in the ways people think can help elephant care throughout AZA.
“If the task force can shift the paradigm for a sustainable population of elephants, that will be a model for many programs out there,” said New. “Elephants are the most visible, but we have many species that have challenges in terms of sustainability. We don’t have to learn this in a vacuum.”
Hero Photo Credit: © Oregon Zoo
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.
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