Many people have been asking why we conducted such a large-scale, multi-zoo, multi-elephant transfer. It is an appropriate question. This operation has been in planning for several years. It begins with the original rescue of the elephant herd from a scheduled cull in Swaziland back in 2003. Our plan was to prevent the elephants from being killed, to protect the land and help other species by removing the elephants, and to improve the reproductive potential of African elephants in North American zoos. We succeeded in all three.
When the African elephant breeding program at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park started becoming successful, we began to consider how to best manage a growing population. We wanted to maintain female calves with their mothers for life and male calves until adolescence; this is natural in the wild, but not the norm in zoo populations. Typically in the wild, if a herd becomes too numerous it will split down matrilineal lines, and new bulls will sire future offspring. To do the same, we needed to identify a zoo that could be the recipient of roughly half of our herd’s females, their offspring, and the most appropriate bull. This facility needed to have a state-of-the-art facility, well-trained staff, appropriate climate, management program that mirrored the one our elephants were already used to, and be relatively close to San Diego. The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, worked very hard over several years to meet those criteria.
We chose to send to Reid Park a breeding group of elephants to their brand-new elephant facility and receive from them their two elephants, Connie and Shaba, into our Elephant Odyssey facility at the San Diego Zoo, where we specialize in caring for older elephants.
The selection of the best animals to send to the Reid Park Zoo was very difficult, and not just because of the close relationship we have developed with all of them. The decision had to balance various factors: who created the best social group in Tucson and in San Diego, what demographic and genetic factors were most important, and who are the best trained elephants in the herd. In the end, the decision was made to send Mabu, Lungile, Litsemba and her two calves, five-year-old Impunga and one-year-old Tsandzikle (Sundzu). This move was made in the best interest of the individual elephants and for the species as a whole.
Now that the transfer is complete, we hope that more African elephant calves will be born at both facilities combined than would have been born at just the San Diego Zoo Safari Park if the move hadn’t occurred. All of this effort is, of course, simply to ensure the survival of this amazing species.
Jeff Andrews is an associate curator of mammals for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, How Far Do Elephants Walk in One Day?