Elephants: A Zoo Family

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Asian elephant Sumithi, at left, and African elephant Tembo

Asian elephant Sumithi, at left, and African elephant Tembo

I have to admit, when I first started working at the San Diego Zoo, I often wondered why there was a single African elephant living with two Asian elephants. I really couldn’t say there was anything wrong with it, so much as it seemed to go against my innate human desire to have like with like. I suppose it goes back to my childhood and watching television. You might remember the song from Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the other…”

I found out that Tembo, the San Diego Zoo’s 38-year-old female African elephant, came to the Zoo when she was about 12. Before that, Tembo was a movie and television star in Hollywood. That probably explains why she is such a ham when she sees someone with a camera on a tripod!

From front to back: Devi, Sumithi, and Tembo

From front to back: Devi, Sumithi, and Tembo

According to her keepers, she is still quite a character, having lived with her two “roommates,” Devi and Sumithi, for nearly 27 years. She is the one known for getting the other girls excited with her trumpeting and low rumbles. Even with their obvious differences, there is no doubt that Tembo fits in with the Asian elephants quite well. A few days ago, I noticed the three elephants all standing around, rump to rump to rump. When I asked the keepers about the positioning the girls had put themselves into, I was told that this is something they have done for years. This is a relaxed social gathering that has been seen in elephants in the wild, too. Positive social interaction, such as gentle bumping or touching, helps to build and maintain a cohesive herd.

For the upcoming opening of the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, Tembo, Devi, and Sumithi will be introduced to the four Asian elephants that will be coming from the Wild Animal Park. Although Tembo is the only African elephant, the San Diego Zoo recognizes that she is comfortable and secure with her current family herd of Asian elephants. Keeping that in mind, the staff is working hard to make the best decisions for her. As with any animal introduction, careful thought and consideration will go into every detail. The veterinary and animal care teams have thoroughly evaluated possible risks associated with forming a new herd at Elephant Odyssey. Based on these evaluations, plans have been made that offer the least amount of risk for the introduction of the Zoo and Park herds and that will result in everyone having the best living conditions for their needs. By introducing Tembo, Devi, and Sumithi together to a new home and new elephants, we expect the transition will be easier for all of them. They will find something familiar (each other) in a new and inviting place. Of course, we will keep a close eye on the Zoo’s elephants and the Park’s herd and will make changes as the relationship develops between them.

With that, I think I’ll head up to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park this week and get to know the newest herd member, our baby African elephant! Of course I’ll fill you all in on what I find out about the little (big) guy!

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.

Read his previous post, Seriously, This Is What I Do.

Read previous posts about the Zoo’s elephants: Zoo Elephants: Meet Tembo, Zoo Elephants: Meet Devi, and Zoo Elephants: Meet Smitty.