Elephants are the largest living land animal on Earth and one of the most intelligent animals. Sadly, they are also one of the most endangered species. However, a resurgence among zoos to help stabilize the population has helped their cause. Many zoos are seeking to educate the public about how important these animals are and what we can do to help.
The Houston Zoo, in Houston, Texas, is one of the most-visited zoos in the nation. With an annual attendance of around 1.8 million, this zoo caters to a diverse group of visitors, from all age and socio-economic groups. Since 1989, the zoo has offered free attendance to kindergarten through 12 schools within the city limits of Houston.
In October 2011, Houston Zoo opened a new elephant exhibit that covers nearly an acre, and includes an 80,000-gallon pool, multiple enrichment and activity opportunities and a demo area that will allow a personal encounter with the elephants and their team. “Our goal is to create a multi-generational family group of elephants,” said Daryl Hoffman, curator. “In order to accomplish this, we needed more space and this new expansion does just that. No new changes are being planned, but we have discussed expanding our bull-holding and exhibit area.”
To enhance the guest experience at the zoo, and to help educate visitors about elephants, the new expansion area includes a demonstration area for Meet the Keeper Talks. “Presentations clearly enhance the guest experience and there are several scheduled keeper chats throughout the day,” said Hoffman. “These chats highlight the herd that lives at the zoo and delivers a conservation message. We also have several graphics around the exhibits that highlight key message points on the care and conservation of elephants.”
Colleen Kinzley is the director of animal care, conservation and research at the Oakland Zoo, in Oakland, Calif. Oakland Zoo does a lot of work to directly support field conservation, to provide funding support and staff expertise, where possible. “We have a program called Quarters for Conservation, in which a quarter of each zoo admission goes to fund conservation work. Each guest receives a token so they can vote for their favorite conservation project. At the end of the year, the project with the most votes will get the largest percentage of the funds generated. We expect to raise close to $100,000 this year,” said Kinzley. There are also several fundraisers held throughout the year to benefit elephant conservation.
“We want people to appreciate elephants as wild animals. We talk about how elephants should be chewing on tree branches and wallowing in the mud, not twirling and dancing, like you may see in the circus,” Kinzley remarked. “We discourage the attendance of circuses that use wild animals, because of the poor treatment the animals receive.”
The Oakland Zoo is planning a new barn for their elephants, so that the herd size may increase to a more natural number. Zoo guests come primarily from Alameda County and annual visitation is around 650,000.
The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are home to both Asian and African elephants, respectively. At both zoos, there are ongoing studies to enhance the knowledge of elephants’ nutrition, physical and social development and much more. In addition, the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy supports several elephant conservation projects through donations to the International Elephant Foundation.
Dr. Robert Wiese, chief life sciences officer at the San Diego Zoo, said that guests of the zoo are educated about elephant conservation and the efforts of the zoo through several ways. “Our efforts are highlighted in our magazine, ZOONOOZ,” said Wiese. Also, education is promoted by groundskeeper presentations and educational graphics. No new plans are underway for the elephant exhibits, as two construction projects were completed in both 2009 and 2010.
The Dickerson Park Zoo, in Springfield, Mo., is home to three adult Asian elephant cows and one adult bull. According to Mike Crocker, zoo director, visitors to the zoo have several opportunities to learn about elephant conservation. “We have a series of elephant signs that address the declining numbers of wild elephants and the importance of conservation. We also post elephant bath times, so guests can watch them getting hosed down and sometimes they can view the elephants ‘stomping’ and eating fruits, which are popular activities,” Crocker said. “The experience of seeing live elephants can help stimulate interest among the general public in saving elephants through contributions to conservation programs.
Dickerson Park Zoo has been financially supporting elephant conservation for years. “We contribute to the Smithsonian National Zoo’s project of working in Sri Lanka to find ways to resolve human/elephant conflict. We also support the elephant herpes virus lab, with the goal of refining testing protocols to identify the presence of the viruses in elephants and develop cures and vaccines,” Crocker stated.
The zoo serves southwest Missouri, northwest Arkansas, southeast Kansas and the northeast Oklahoma areas. Around 220,000 people come to visit the zoo each year.
“It is our hope and belief that the opportunity to see wild animals in person and to learn about them will foster an attitude of appreciation, which will ultimately result in good stewardship,” said Scott Maddox, assistant director of Caldwell Zoo, in Tyler, Texas. Guests of Caldwell Zoo may interact with elephant care staff to ask questions and enjoy informative presentations. They also love having the option to buy paintings that are actually created by the elephants themselves. “The proceeds of our elephant paintings are donated to various projects of the International Elephant Foundation,” Maddox said.
Annual visitation for the zoo is around 290,000, with guests coming in from within a 100-mile radius, mostly from Tyler and Smith County.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, in Cleveland, Ohio, opened a brand new elephant exhibit, African Elephant Crossing, in May 2011. “Our new exhibit is five acres, so we can now hold more elephants. We currently have five females and one male,” said Geoff Hall, general curator. This exhibit’s purpose is to educate the public about the elephant habitat and to spark an appreciation for conservation action. “Everyone loves elephants,” said Hall. “They are our most [popular] attraction at the zoo, consistently. So we build on that interest and take the opportunity to teach them about issues, such as how similar elephants are to people or how elephants help drive tourism.”
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo also participates in several conservation initiatives, such as programs in Namibia, Botswana and Tanzania. This zoo pulls from a diverse audience, mostly from their county and expected a total of 1.3 million visitors for 2011. –