Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 3


Vus’musi got busy checking out the sights, smells, sounds, and snacks of his new home.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.” Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Since Fresno’s climate is similar to San Diego’s and they’re just up the road, so to speak, having ’Musi go there on loan was a logical choice, especially if we’d like to have him return someday. (Can you picture Umngani’s reaction if that were to happen? Noooooooooo!)

Waiting for our arrival was the entire elephant care staff of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. We all stood back to watch the unloading of his crate, letting the professionals do their thing. As soon as the crate was where we wanted it, we had ’Musi present his front feet for us inside the crate so we could remove his tethers. Then we let him back himself out into his new digs. He cautiously walked down a long outside corridor, into the barn, and finally into a large stall where he could hear, smell, and see his new herd-mates two stalls away.

’Musi seemed quite excited that there were other elephants around. His attitude and behavior towards Mindy and I confirmed that he was a very well-trained elephant, able to adapt to change, and just awesome overall. Their staff couldn’t believe how calm and sweet ’Musi seemed after such a journey.

Mindy and I stayed with ’Musi and the Fresno Chaffee Zoo staff for five more days, getting him accustomed to his side of the barn and adjoining outside yard. We worked closely with their Elephant Lead, Ashley, and their Elephant Manager, Vernon, to show them ’Musi’s behavioral repertoire, his verbal and visual hand signals, and point out some of the subtle nuances of his personality. All of his major sessions were filmed and many discussions took place to make sure we were all on the same page, allowing for a smooth transition for ’Musi and his new keepers.

One of the fun things to watch was seeing ’Musi getting used to the new sounds and sights of his outside environment. The zoo sits fairly close to railroad tracks, and watching his eyes and expressions whenever a choo-choo rolled by was priceless. It reminded me of Mabu and Lungile in Tucson, the first few times a jet fighter flew over the skies above them. Eventually, they all habituate to their surroundings and then they don’t react at all, unless it’s something completely new, and even that goes away in a short time.

Many blog readers who read the news about the move wondered whether ’Musi misses his family or herd mates, or if Ndlula misses her son, etc. What you’ll find in the animal world—whether through observation or personally working with them—is that animals live in the “now.” They take a situation that they find themselves in, deal with it, and move on. If you think about it, in the wild, an animal that’s “reminiscing” or “daydreaming” would be easy prey. I’m sure that ’Musi would remember any of his herd mates if they were to cross paths once again, but I’m certain he’s not thinking “I wonder what Mom and my brother are up to?” or “I wonder who Msholo is sparring with now that I’m gone?” Likewise, Ndlula and the others may have “rumbled” to communicate with or locate ’Musi, but after not receiving a response, quickly focused their attention back to the present situation of eating and watching out for Swazi.

The most up-to-date news on ’Musi is that he’s no longer under quarantine, and will be going out into one of the main exhibits soon. Within a few weeks, he will be formally introduced to the girls out in the main exhibit. I’ll be heading up to Fresno to witness the introductions and will blog about it when I get back.

All of our elephants (any of our animals for that matter) that have moved away “on-loan” are still “our” elephants (San Diego Zoo Global). Rest assured that our ’Musi-boy is in good hands with the Fresno staff. He’ll win them over like he did with us on that first day on February 23, 2004. He’s all grown up now and it’s his time to carry on what his name means: Vus’musi, “To build a family.”


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 2


Vus’musi travelled in a crate built with his comfort and welfare in mind.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.” If you missed it before, you can still read Part 1, here.

There’s a lot of planning that goes into relocating a much beloved, 7,500-pound African elephant: paperwork, legal permits, contracts, travel routes, pit stops, escorts, pre-ship physicals, and the list goes on and on. From a training perspective, a successful move requires a lot of desensitization training, planning, and the ability to switch focus or adapt, along with precise timing. We put all these, and more, into getting Vus’Musi ready for his big adventure.

Originally, we thought we would move ‘Musi near the end of September, giving us plenty of time to desensitize him to the actual elephant crate and some of the approximations of placing heavy rear metal bars behind him to secure him inside. The move date was eventually set for an August evening, and ‘Musi was ready. For temperature concerns, an evening move made a lot of sense, as it was still summer. Our route also took heavy traffic out of the picture. For ‘Musi’s comfort, a swamp cooler was attached to one of the forward vents of the transport unit, just in case we felt he needed to be cooled off.

As we began to prepare, we had a quite a few things going for us; ‘Musi was one of our best trained elephants, we had experience with crate training elephants, and we had enough keepers with great relationships with him to pull it off. We decided that four of us (Mindy, Keith, Dion, and I) would be involved with the main training of the front leg tethers (Karissa also helped out on certain days). On the other hand, we also had some challenges. The timing of the move wasn’t very far removed from his last major tusk procedure, in which he was fully leg tethered and eventually darted on his rear end with an anesthetic tranquilizer (and yes—they do have great memory).  After having had many tusk procedures, ‘Musi is very wary of anyone behind him, especially if it’s someone he doesn’t know.

Training moved along rather smoothly—so much so, that we started to desensitize him to “activity” behind him while his front legs were tethered to the crate. Unfortunately, ‘Musi spooked himself when his tail brushed along the crate; he reacted like he had just been darted again (at least that’s what it looked like to the keepers). It was at that point that ‘Musi realized that he was actually secured to the crate. The ordeal was a major setback and we were two weeks out from the big day. We had to switch focus quickly and make every session count. Our revised plan was to make the leg tethers and anklets a fun and highly reinforced “put-on and take-off game.” In a nutshell, we put anklets on both ankles at the west main gate, then sent him into the west holding yards and then into the west barn where we removed the anklets. At first, we removed them anywhere in the barn, but eventually we did this inside the crate that was located outside of the last barn stall.

We knew we wanted to have both front legs tethered for the move and we knew that he would notice that he had a length of leg tether (with its weight and sound) attached to his first leg, when we needed to ask for his other leg to tether to the crate. So while we continued with the “game,” we approximated and simulated the sound and weight of a leg tether. First, we attached a small length of tether to his first anklet, and when we asked him to drop his first leg to the ground to give us his other leg, we would drop a heavy, unattached tether onto the ground right next to his foot to simulate the sound of an attached tether. We also knew that we couldn’t afford another setback, so all approximations were done with ‘Musi not tethered to the crate—that would only happen on the actual day of the move.

Meanwhile, my staff and I had several meetings to practice the rest of the procedures for securing him into the crate (while he was nowhere around, of course). We also went over all the different scenarios that could take place during the move, along with input from our accompanying veterinarian, as well as the owner of the moving vehicle. All this preparation set the stage for the big day.

To make a long story short, ‘Musi was about as perfect as we could expect—and so was the entire move! We left the Safari Park with ‘Musi at 7 p.m. Wednesday night and arrived at Fresno Chaffee Zoo at 4:20 a.m. Thursday morning—just over nine hours of total travel time. Mindy and I accompanied him for the trip, and  our familiar voices at the four pit stops we made probably reassured him that he wasn’t completely “alone” in this new adventure. I’m sure the watermelon, beet pulp, and choice browse that we gave him during those stops helped, too! Throughout the trip, ‘Musi was under constant, remote video surveillance by our vet, who was in a separate vehicle behind the truck. There were three chase vehicles in all, in addition to a CHP escort for half the trip up.

In a situation like this, experience is invaluable. Having the crate available ahead of time to approximate the behaviors needed is a must-have. Thanks again to Stephen Fritz and his crew for another successful move. His experience and expertise, along with his continuing innovation to improve the travel crates and their creature comforts, make for a pleasing experience throughout the process. Fritz helped us move our five Asian elephants to our Zoo in downtown San Diego, our five African elephants to Tucson, Msholo here from Orlando, Florida, and now Vus’musi to Fresno (and that’s just with the current herd here at the Safari Park!)

Jim Oosterhuis, San Diego Zoo Global veterinarian, has accompanied all of our elephant moves, and he’d be the first to tell you that he was happy that he didn’t have to do anything medically with ‘Musi because everything went smoothly! The keepers at the Safari Park did a fantastic job preparing for and then implementing the move safely and efficiently. Having the Fresno Chaffee Zoo staff waiting for his arrival and dealing with the unloading and cleaning of the crate so that Mindy and I could focus on ‘Musi, was something we both immensely appreciated in the wee morning hours of an all-nighter. But more about that—and how ‘Musi is doing—next time.

Curtis is the elephant supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 1.


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 1


Vus’musi, seen here in 2012 at the Safari Park, was recently relocated to the Fresno Chafee Zoo.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.”

Born on February 23, 2004, African elephant Vus’musi has grown into a young, handsome bull that outweighs each of the adult females in the Park’s herd. Known to his keepers as “Moose” or “‘Musi,” his genetics put a high value on him as a potential breeder for any zoo wanting to breed this species (including the Safari Park, someday in the future). His sire was a wild, unknown bull from Africa and his mom is our adult female, Ndlulamitsi. Within our current herd, he’s only related to his mom and his half brother, Lutsandvo. Most of you are no doubt wondering why ‘Musi was moved—excellent question!

Elephant natural history provides part of the answer. Behaviorally speaking, males eventually get displaced out of the herd in their early teens, so it was just a matter of time before Ndlulamitsi would have started to displace him more than she already had. Also, as ‘Musi matured he would eventually start going into musth—and it’s during these times of elevated testosterone that the youngster’s sparring with our adult bull, Msholo, would have gone from playful to assertive, aggressive behavior in an attempt to establish dominance. We always kept the two males apart overnight, because they enjoyed sparring so much that we thought that there was a greater chance for chipped tusks (or worse) if they were together. Keeping them apart when they were both in musth would have proven quite a challenge for us, had we kept both males at the Park.

Another reason for moving ‘Musi is his genetics, which placed him high on the Species Survival Plan (SSP) list of recommended bulls for breeding. Also, Fresno Chaffee Zoo was in the near-completion phase of its new African Adventure exhibit, had acquired two females from a sanctuary in Arkansas, and was looking for a bull to breed its two females. And Fresno Chaffee Zoo Director Scott Barton was quite familiar with our program and our elephants, as he had been involved with our move of five other herd members to Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, when he was director there. Altogether, it was deemed a good fit for ‘Musi.

‘Musi was Msholo’s favorite sparring partner. He was also, arguably, our best trained elephant, having been born into our training system and having had the luxury of getting lots of attention and individual sessions at an early age, and throughout his life. Easily a favorite among his keepers, ‘Musi’s demeanor is so calm and relaxed that many a new keeper “cut their teeth” with him, learning the techniques and philosophy of our positive, trust-based training system. Keith Crew, a senior keeper, has been one of ‘Musi’s primary trainers the entire 11 ½ years, and much of ‘Musi’s attitude and behavioral repertoire can be attributed to Keith’s long-term care of him. So, in answer to the question in your mind right now, the answer is yes, we all love our ‘Musi-boy, and we are excited for the next chapter in his life.

In Parts 2 and 3, I’ll tell you a little more about ‘Musi’s new home and herd mates—and all the planning and care that goes into relocating a much beloved, 7,500-pound African elephant.

Stay tuned!

Curtis is the elephant supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, A Tusk Task.


Little Sisters Spoil Everything!

Qinisa took the lead in the race to her brother Macembe's birthday "cake".

Qinisa took the lead in the race to her brother Macembe’s birthday “cake”.

Siblings…what can you do? Macembe turned five years old on April 12. It was a beautiful day. The keepers had spent a lot of time making two cakes for Macembe and his family. The frozen cakes were made of alfalfa, mango juice, bran, and other goodies. The “decorations” were delicious ficus branches placed around the east holding yard for the family to enjoy. Then the keepers called Swazi’s family into the yard.

Qinisa saw Macembe’s cakes first and ran full speed past her brother to get to them. But Macembe was close behind, determined not to let his little sister have any cake. Qinisa got to the first cake, kicked it over and headed to the second one, which was placed on a box. The higher cake startled her! She spun around, smashed the second one and kicked it backwards. Macembe didn’t seem to mind—smashed cake is just as good as a whole one— and proceeded to eat the rest of it.

Macembe’s birthday was a family affair with Qinisa and Swazi joining in the birthday fun. They ate ficus branches and smashed cake. What a great day!

Laura Price is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous blog, A Tusk Task.


Tusk Tales

Shaba recently had her tusks trimmed after she broke one.

Shaba, who lives at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, recently had her tusks trimmed after she broke one.

We get a lot of questions about tusks here in the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo. Since we have both African and Asian elephants in our exhibit we care for quite a few individuals with tusks—five of our seven elephants have them. Caring for elephant tusks is pretty straightforward, but every once in a while they require additional maintenance. Many of you may have noticed that some of the elephants’ tusks have changed in size and shape over the last few years. Here’s why, but first a little background information—a kind of Tusk 101.

What are tusks? They are modified incisor teeth that grow separately from the molars inside of an elephant’s mouth. Tusks differ by not having the protective enamel coating that covers chewing teeth. And if they grow at all, an elephant only gets one set of tusks. In African elephants, both males and females can grow tusks. Among Asian elephants, only the males have tusks that grow externally and beyond the sulcus cavity (the lip area where the tusk is visibly seen). Female Asian elephants can grow small tusks called ‘tushes’, but they are rarely ever visible unless the mouth is open. Because tusks are teeth, there is a living pulp or root that sits in a hollow cavity at the base of the tusk.

Tusks are used for stripping bark off trees, fighting and playing with one another, and even for digging for water during times of drought. Not all elephants use their tusks the same way and some elephants use one tusk more than the other. Depending on available nutrition and the amount of wear and tear put on them, tusks can grow several inches a year.

A trusting relationship with keepers—and a few treats—results in the ability to take radiographs of Shaba's tusks.

A trusting relationship with keepers—and a few treats—results in the ability to radiograph Shaba’s tusks.

Basic tusk care includes cleaning the surface regularly and flushing out the sulcus cavity with water. To monitor the overall integrity of the tusks, we train each of the elephants to allow for radiograph imaging. The elephants are asked to hold a steady position and allow an x-ray plate to sit between the tusk and trunk so our veterinary staff can gather an image. These pictures give us the idea of where the pulp cavity lies inside the tooth. This is very important information; if an elephant injures or breaks its tusk near or at the pulp, the tusk is compromised. We have treated quite a few tusks over the years for various reasons, and this usually includes trimming them.

There are a few options we can utilize when a tusk needs to be trimmed. In the same way we train the elephants for radiographs, we also train them to allow us to trim their tusks. We generally use strong, thin steel wire to saw through the tusk, a relatively simple and safe way to remove part of the tooth in a scenario where the elephants allow us to do so. A normal trim can take anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes. All the while, the elephant receives food rewards as part of our positive reinforcement training program.

Tusk trimming takes teamwork.

Tusk trimming takes teamwork.

Late last year Shaba, one of our resident female African elephants, broke about 18 inches off of her left tusk. We were unaware of how she broke it, but immediately radiographed the remaining portion and trimmed it without compromising the pulp cavity. Both of her tusks have been trimmed recently and are relatively short. This was the best option for Shaba to be able to keep her tusks—and they will continue to grow. In fact, several of our elephants have had successful tusk trims over the last few years. We use the removed tusk portions in educational programs at the Zoo.

If during your next visit you notice shortened tusks or tusks that are blunt at the end, you will now understand why. Trimming is all part of normal tusk care and is always done in the best interest of our elephants.

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous blog, Happy Birthday, Zoo Elephants!


A Tusk Task

Vus'Musi, seen here in 2012, had some tusk work done recently.

Vus’Musi, seen here in 2012, recently had some tusk work done.

Vus’Musi is our oldest calf and quite an active boy. He’s 11 years old and likes to spar with our older bull, Msholo, quite a bit. Elephants like to use their tusks to break up browse, dig up things, or displace other elephants by using them as offensive and defensive weapons. If an elephant’s tusk were to break off at the end, and not expose the pulp cavity, it basically keeps growing outward. Occasionally, a tusk breaks either too far back or breaks off near the sulcus, exposing the pulp inside, which allows bacteria to get in and possibly cause an infection.

Vus’Musi recently broke off his right tusk near the sulcus, leaving the red pulp inside exposed. It appeared that he may have snapped off his tusk while attempting to tusk at or move a large tree stump in one of our main yards, but we’re not really sure because nobody witnessed it and we noticed the break when we came in one morning. Fortunately, his keepers have a great relationship with him, so they were able to clean and temporarily cover the end of the broken tusk with Technovit®.

We scheduled Vus’Musi to have a partial pulpotomy and for a filling (a plug) to be put in the tusk to protect it as it heals and grows out. The date was set for February 11 and the elephant keepers worked very hard preparing Vus’Musi for the procedure using operant conditioning with positive reinforcement. On the day of the procedure, all of the hard work between Vus’Musi and his keepers paid off. The vet department, exotic animal dentist, elephant keepers and all of their support staff worked together to make sure that Musi’s procedure was a success.

If you observe Vus’musi on the elephant cam, you can barely see his remaining right tusk protruding just past his sulcus. It will continue to grow out and we’ll continue to take radiographs (think x-rays), to see if it’s healing properly from the inside, because amazingly enough, we’ve found that the tusk can still continue to grow despite infections still festering inside of them. If you’re wondering whether Vus’musi felt any pain either when he broke of his tusk or while there could be ongoing infection, the answer is believed to be no. The pulp cavity is a blood supply only and doesn’t contain nerve endings.

Anyway, he’s back to his mischievous behavior of pestering Umngani and sparring with Msholo, albeit hanging closer to his mom than usual. He’s still a bit of a momma’s boy, but younger brother Lutsandvo took over the title and has surpassed ‘Musi’s world record for nursing.

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Taking Care of Tusks. Curtis Lehman is the Park’s elephant supervisor.


Happy Birthday, Zoo Elephants!

Shaba celebrated her birthday with a specially made "cake."

Shaba celebrated her birthday with a specially made “cake” stuffed with treats.

The beginning of every year is a time for celebration at the Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo—it’s when we mark all of our elephants’ “birthdays.” Because we do not know the exact days that any of the elephants were born on, it makes it easy for us to keep track of their ages by having everyone “roll over” at the same time.

Shaba demonstrates that one CAN have her cake and eat it, too!

Shaba demonstrates that one CAN have her cake and eat it, too!

This year we are celebrating a milestone with Shaba, our youngest elephant who just turned 35 years old! Shaba is a female African elephant that has lived at the San Diego Zoo for more than three years. For her birthday, a dedicated group of Zoo volunteers crafted a giant cake out of cardboard and tasty produce for Shaba to consume on her own, and it didn’t take long for her to break apart the cake to reach the goodies inside. A group of more than 200 volunteers, guests, and zoo staff sang ‘Happy Birthday’ while she enjoyed her special treat. Before too long, we let elephants Mary and Mila join Shaba at the buffet, and it was completely devoured by the end of the day!

The Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center was designed to care for aging elephants. All seven elephants in our herd are past reproductive age and will live out the rest of their lives with us at the Zoo. Mary, our most dominant female elephant, turned 51 this year, while Sumithi, the second-most dominant, turned 48. Here’s how old the rest of the “girls” are now: Tembo is 44, Mila is 42, and Devi just turned 38. Our bull elephant Ranchipur is now 49 years old, making him the fifth-oldest male elephant in North America.

An elephant-size thank you to the Zoo volunteers and keepers that created Shaba's marvelous cake!

An elephant-size thank you to the Zoo volunteers and keepers that created Shaba’s marvelous cake!

We want to especially thank the Zoo volunteers who took the time to create the cake for Shaba this year. It is always fun not only for the elephants, but for the keepers as well to enjoy these special moments. We appreciate all of the time and dedication you give the Zoo each and every day of each and every year.

Robbie Clark is keeper at the San Diego Zoo. REad his previous blog, Elephants Mila and Mary Meet.


Taking Care of Tusks

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all?

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all? Click to enlarge.

As you know, there have been a lot of things going on with our African elephant herd this year at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. For instance, you may have seen our trainers working with the elephants in different areas. You may have wondered what they doing with the elephants’ faces! Well….

Some members of our herd have broken or chipped their tusks, and our veterinary staff has had to perform pulpotomies (think root canal) to clean out any infected pulp. All of our elephants are pretty active, especially the little ones, so we have had to put extra protection on the tusks that have fillings. This protection is in the form of a gray material called Technovit (pronounced Techno–vite), and you may have seen us putting it on the tusks of Musi, Macembe, and Luti periodically. Swazi recently broke off a small part of her tusk. No pulp was exposed, and you may see us filing the jagged end of her tusk.

Unfortunately, Khosi and Emanti’s tusks broke and exposed too much pulp, and we were not able to save their broken tusks. For them, we have been flushing their sulcus (skin and cavity surrounding a tusk) to keep the cavity clean and to aid in the healing process. We use a diluted mixture of anti-bacterial solution and water sprayed out of a one-gallon sprayer. Our trainers have worked patiently with Khosi and Emanti to make them comfortable with this process. I am happy to report that they are doing well and healing nicely.

Our elephants are also given vitamin E every day. We’ve trained our elephants to perform a swallow behavior so that they will be able to swallow any medication or vitamin supplements as needed. Because they have such a well-developed sense of smell and taste, we give them their vitamin E followed by mango juice, as the vitamin E doesn’t taste very good!

Qinisa and Inhlonipho are growing up and asserting themselves. Qinisa’s milk tusks are starting to come in. Inhlonipho is wrestling with Emanti and Ingadze any chance he gets. He even charged Msholo (who was quietly eating hay). Msholo looked at him and then went back to eating the hay. When Inhlonipho gets older, he will be wrestling with the big boys.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the herd, either in person or on Elephant Cam!

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Qinisa Turns 2.


Elephant Qinisa Turns 2

Swazi encourages Qinisa to explore her birthday cake.

Swazi encourages Qinisa to explore her birthday cake.

There was a lot of anticipation before little Qinisa’s second birthday on August 28. The keepers had prepared a five-layer cake made of ice infused with an alfalfa pellet and soaked beet-pulp mixture. What a treat for an elephant girl on a hot day!

Oooh! It's nice and cool!

Oooh! It’s nice and cool!

The cake was set up in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Tembo Stadium during the 1:30 Keeper Talk, so that Park guests could celebrate with her. Qinisa’s mother, Swazi, was brought into the arena with her. At first, they didn’t seem to notice the cake because they were concentrating on their keepers, who had them run through some husbandry behaviors. When Qinisa had finished her training session, everyone in the audience loudly sang “Happy Birthday.”

Ice cakes are tasty!

Ice cakes are tasty!

Qinisa then explored the arena and investigated her birthday cake. She wasn’t sure what to make of the cake, so she waited until her mom joined her and knocked it over. Satisfied that it was okay, Qinisa then took her time eating little bits of her cake.

The keepers eventually moved all of the elephants back into the main yard and shared the rest of Qinisa’s birthday cake with the herd. What a fun day for everyone!

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephants: Eat Your Vegetables!


World Elephant Day

Christine Browne-Nuñez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

Christine Browne-Nunez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

World Elephant Day, launched on August 12, 2012, is now an annual event intended to celebrate this beautiful and majestic mammal and to bring attention to the plight of Asian and African elephants and the numerous threats they face. Sadly, elephant tusks are one of the major reasons elephants are threatened. Elephant tusks are made into ivory carvings, jewelry, chopsticks, and other such trinkets. Some people in the world believe that elephant tusks fall out, like baby teeth in humans, and, to collect the ivory, all one needs to do is gather those fallen tusks off the ground. The truth, however, is that tusks are permanent and grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. In order to get the ivory, the elephant is illegally killed. Because of the high demand for ivory, elephants are currently being killed at an alarming rate. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 35,000 elephants were poached in Africa last year.

My work with elephants began in 1995 as a manager of a volunteer conservation education program at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, where local and international visitors came to see baby elephants and learn about elephant ecology and conservation. It was at the Trust that I witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by poaching, as many of the traumatized orphaned elephants had lost their mothers to the ivory trade. The good news is, individuals, organizations, such as DSWT, and governments around the world are working hard to bring an end to poaching by educating people about the real costs of ivory and by enforcing national and international laws that make it illegal to collect, sell, or buy ivory.

Many values are associated with elephants, which is, in part, why conserving elephants is a complex task. From an ecological perspective, the elephant has important roles in the environment. It is sometimes called an ecosystem engineer, with complex effects on its habitat and species diversity. It modifies its environment through activities such as seed dispersal, tree felling, bark stripping, and the creation of waterholes. From a social perspective, the many elephant lovers around the world appreciate that elephants are intelligent, social animals that communicate with others near and far, maintain strong family bonds throughout their lives, and have life stages parallel to those of humans. Additionally, many elephant behaviors, such as those demonstrated in greeting ceremonies or when standing over and covering a dead body or bones, are interpreted as displays of emotion. Elephants also have economic value at the local and national level by attracting tourists for consumptive and non-consumptive use.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nunez.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

Whereas the elephant is admired by many people around the world, not all people view elephants positively. About 70 percent of the elephant’s range lies outside protected areas on lands often occupied by people, highlighting the importance of maintaining private lands as viable elephant habitat. Therefore, conservation efforts aimed at protecting the elephant and securing habitat for its long-term survival need to be based on both ecological and human-dimensions information.

People and elephants have coexisted for millennia with varying levels and types of interaction, but negative interactions known as human-elephant conflict (HEC) are perceived to be on the rise in some places. Human-elephant conflict can come in many forms and result in property damage and injury and death of both people and elephants. Crop depredation, the most common form of HEC, is a critical issue in elephant conservation, especially as more land is converted to agriculture. In pastoral areas such as Maasailand, where I conducted research, coexistence is threatened as a result of the evolving socio-economic landscape.

The Maasai people living around Amboseli National Park, Kenya, located at the foot of the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro, are traditionally semi-nomadic livestock herders. This livelihood practice facilitated their coexistence with wildlife, including elephants, in the Amboseli ecosystem for hundreds of years, but changes brought about by government policy, conservation policy, and immigration of peoples from other cultures has had a significant and on-going impact on their way of life. With more land under the plow and increasing competition for resources resulting from population growth, the level of conflict was on the rise.

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

My research found the Maasai were divided in their willingness to tolerate elephants on their lands. At the core of this division were perceptions about costs, resulting from HEC, versus benefits, namely tourist revenue. Conservationists working in this and other ecosystems are continually working to find solutions to HEC in order to secure long-term habitat for elephants. In Amboseli, such solutions include electric fencing around agricultural areas, compensation payments for loss of human life, consolation payments for livestock killed by elephants on private lands, and ecotourism schemes. My research found only a minority of local Maasai were aware of, or fully understood, these interventions, but of those, attitudes tended to be more positive. Conservation education and communication programs, such as those developed by our Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global, can increase awareness of these types of conservation activities and provide knowledge and skills to empower local people in managing and conserving wildlife.

It is evident that people have and will continue to determine the fate of the elephant. African savanna elephants will become extinct by 2020 if the threats to elephants are not adequately addressed. A vital component of conservation is understanding and influencing human actions. Ongoing ecological and social science research is needed in the varied settings in which people and elephants coexist in order to provide information for developing, monitoring, and adapting methods for protecting both species. Developing community-based conservation programs that include conservation education and communication is one of the many things we do here at the Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global.

Support the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy in its efforts to conserve elephants and elephant habitat. With your help, we can bring elephants back from the brink of extinction!

Christine Browne-Nuñez, Ph.D., is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.