The world’s biggest land animals can pose a big challenge for zoos.
In light of research showing that elephants are social, intelligent creatures which need companionship and room to roam, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association mandated in May that elephant facilities allot at least 1,800 square feet for one elephant outdoors plus 900 square feet for each additional animal.
Also, future exhibits must contain at least three female adults, the number deemed adequate for social needs.
Since 2004, five U.S. zoos have closed their elephant houses rather than struggle with the new standards.
For its part, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo plans to expand its Asian elephant house starting this year at a cost of about $60 million. The new facility will feature more varied terrain — mud wallows, savanna grasses and waterfalls — to stimulate the animals. And the zoo will increase its elephant population from three animals to 12.
"For the 1.8 million people who come to the National Zoo each year, there is no replacement for a living elephant,” said zoo representative Peper Long. "We want to keep them to inspire people to save them in the wild.”
To be sure, some conservationists argue against spending large sums to keep elephants in zoos.
"With $60 million you could save entire populations of elephants in Asia and Africa,” says Suzanne Roy of In Defense of Animals. "Zoos overestimate the importance of seeing elephants in person. People have been looking at elephants in zoos for 200 years, and the animals have still dwindled to near extinction.”
Other animal experts say captivity is acceptable but not in cramped urban zoos.
"With all the space in the United States, I don’t see why we can’t set up sanctuary-size zoos,” says Joyce Poole, an animal behaviorist at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Newburyport, Mass.
"People would have to travel to see them, but at least they would get to see elephants behaving like elephants.”
Partly because of dwindling numbers of wild elephants — about 500,000 African and 35,000 Asian — zoos want to avoid restocking their exhibits from nature. So they are turning to breeding programs.
Janine Brown, an animal hormone expert at the National Zoo, says artificial insemination has become the best option because it’s portable.
Zookeepers can avoid inbreeding by impregnating a female at one zoo with semen from an unrelated male at another facility.
The technique has met with success. The zoo’s 4-year-old calf, Kandula, was conceived this way, and zookeepers will discover soon if his mother, Shanthi, is pregnant again.
"It’s the type of species that demands a lot of resources,” says Long. "But they will die out if we don’t do something to save them.”<