Elephant Conservation

Written by Shari LaRue, Docent.

Proofed by Dennis Dinwiddie.


The Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center is very fortunate to have both an African Elephant (Tembo) and an Asian Elephant (Cora). Both of our girls are elderly elephants, with Tembo having been born in 1970 and Cora in 1958. It is a relatively rare opportunity to see an African and Asian elephant next to each other. Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth. Their physical characteristics are unique in the animal kingdom. With that comes the observations of just how different these two species are.

Elephants have a complex social structure. Females live in a herd that is led by a matriarch. The herd consists of closely related individuals including parents, siblings, aunts, and grandmothers. The females are very social with each other and as the herd grows, smaller groups may venture out and develop another herd.  Elephants have strong memories and will recognize individuals from other herds.  Territories will often overlap bringing herds together to socialize. Males tend to live an isolated existence other than when they are searching for a mate.  Females will give birth about every 4 to 5 years during their reproductive years. The gestation period of an elephant is the longest of any mammal at 22 months.  Calves will weigh from 175 – 250 pounds at birth and will nurse from mom for up to 3 years. They are dependent upon mom for the first ten years of life but will also assist in care of their younger siblings as they age. As the males get older, they begin to travel on the outer edge of the herd instead of in the middle where the young are kept for protection. As they venture out, they will spend increasingly longer amounts of time on their own until the day comes when they no longer return to the herd. Generally, this is around the age of 14 years old.

Males have been known to form bachelor herds, but there tends to be a great amount of aggression among them. They will fight for dominance, and this causes constant tension between the males, so many will leave the group and live a life of isolation.

Elephants have been documented to show emotions. They will surround a newborn and celebrate a birth. If a mother elephant is injured or dies, surrogates will step in to raise the offspring. They are known to pick up or fondle the bones of their deceased in what appears to be a mourning ceremony.

Elephants are being threatened and endangered by loss of habitat, human-elephant conflicts, and poaching for their ivory. African elephants die at an average rate of 96 elephants each day in Africa.  That is over 35,000 elephants each year in Africa alone, not including those lost to similar causes in Asia.  Although most people think about the fate of the African elephant because of ivory poaching, there are an estimated 400,000 African elephants in the wild, whereas there are an estimated 40,000 Asian elephants in the wild (10% of the African elephant population). To put the decline in populations into perspective, there were over 100,000 Asian elephants 3 generations ago.  The population has decreased by 50% when you add the domesticated Asian elephants to the wild population.  For the African elephant, we had 12 million of them a century ago and it has dwindled to a population of 400,000 now.  They have lost more than 30% of their habitat to humanity.  For more recent data, the African forest elephant population fell by more than 86% in the last 31 years, and they now occupy only one quarter of their historic range.  The African Savannah elephant population fell by more than 60% over the last 50 years.  As the AZA website states, the population of Asian elephants in AZA accredited facilities was 137 in the year 2017.  The last record I can find for African elephants is 166 back in 2013.  That means there are more elephants being killed every 2 days than what exists in all the AZA accredited Zoos combined.

There are currently two African elephant species, the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclostis) and the African Savannah elephant (Loxodonta Africana).  The Asian elephant species include the Borneo pygmy, Indian, Sumatran and Sri Lankan.  Elephants are closely related cousins to the Mammoth of long ago.  They belong to the family Elephantids diverging 5 – 3 million years ago to form three genera in the family.  That includes Loxodonta (African elephants), Elephas (Asian elephants) and Mammuthus (vanished species of the mammoth).

With regards to conservation efforts, between 2015-2019 ninety AZA accredited institutions contributed 16.5 million dollars to protect elephants in the wild.  In 2019 alone, $400,000 was contributed to Asian elephant projects.  A recent email I received from the head of our Education/Conservation Department; Dennis Dinwiddie stated:

The AZA and the AZA Asian Elephant SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) Program have recently stated that with as few Asian elephants as are left, and with such a disproportionately large number of those being in human care working in villages and such, that those in human care in their range countries are now being managed as part of the ‘wild’ herd in order to maintain a large enough genetic base for the continued survival of the species.

The Asian Elephant Support (AES) group is a group we have supported in smaller ways for a number of years, as perhaps the most active group providing conservation efforts specifically for Asian elephants.  We have vetted them carefully and had the president of their group here for two Conservation Connections.  So, we know them well and we know how busy they are.

AES has requested funds to put a second veterinarian in the field in Thailand, home to many Asian elephants in the wild and in human care.

This veterinarian would allow a greatly increased amount of medical service to Asian elephants who are sick or wounded (usually by poachers or by human/elephant conflicts) in the wild, and allow greatly increased medical service to Asian elephants in human care among villages.

The full cost of getting this veterinarian in the field is $8,000.00.  The Topeka Zoo’s conservation committee voted unanimously to foot the full cost of the $8,000.00 needed to get the veterinarian in the field with all necessary equipment and working to save elephants right away. The veterinarian had already been identified and the funds arrived there last week. As another group financed the purchase of the vehicle necessary to get the veterinarian to all the remote places needed to visit, in order to provide all of that care to elephants, the veterinarian should be on the ground and working as of this week.

As wild Asian elephants routinely sneak into villages to mate with elephants in human care, this increased medical support will benefit the wild population in Thailand as much as it does the “Assurance Population” in human care.