Out-Smarting the Elephant

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website!

libby_week5_picElephants are one of the most recognizable creatures on the planet. Their giant bodies and long trunks make them quite a site to behold. Elephants tend to be a favorite animal to see for Zoo visitors, but not many people are tuned into their struggles in the wild. Elephants are vulnerable to extinction and San Diego Zoo Global is here to help!

The first step to helping elephants in the wild is caring for the ones at home. Ron Ringer and Steve Herbert are elephant keepers at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey exhibit and have been working with elephants for over 20 years. Elephant keepers not only take care of the elephants at the Zoo, but they also help wild elephants through conservation education. They promote the protection and understanding of these magnificent animals by teaching millions of Zoo visitors each year about how they can help.

The Elephant Odyssey exhibit is a large, open exhibit that gives the giant animals room to roam. There is also an area where keepers can perform daily tasks in front of crowds. At the Elephant Care Center, visitors can watch the keepers feed the elephants, give the elephants pedicures, and observe minor medical procedures. Mr. Ringer explained that this open style exhibit is what makes Elephant Odyssey unique. It is also key to conservation efforts. While feeding Mary, the oldest female and matriarch of the herd, Mr. Ringer talks to the visitors over the Care Center’s speaker system and gets them excited about elephants. Over 2 million people come through Elephant Odyssey each year, so that’s over 2 million people that can leave the Zoo hyped up about helping elephants – and they truly do need our help.

Elephants in zoos help raise awareness about their cousins in Africa and Asia. As with many animals around the world, elephants in the wild are faced with a difficult struggle: loss of habitat. As human communities grow, animals lose much of their historical range. Due to this habitat loss, wild elephant herds, especially in Africa, can sometimes overpopulate existing wildlife reserves. Development of land in Africa (such as building roads and homes) can also obstruct a herd’s natural migratory paths, isolating them from other groups of elephants. Further, when the herds migrate through these developed areas, they may come across farms. As Mr. Ringer said, no elephant is going to pass up a free lunch, much to the dismay of the farmer who might lose some crops to the hungry herbivore. To some communities in Africa and Asia, elephants can be considered pests because they can devour large tracts of farmland in a short amount of time. This is a challenge for conservationists and the local communities.

San Diego Zoo Global is trying to smooth over farmer hostility toward elephants by partnering with an organization called Elephants Without Borders (EWB). EWB is working to keep the elephants’ natural migration routes open so they won’t stumble across a farmer’s tasty fields. The organization works with people in villages along natural migration routes and teaches them about elephants. EWB helps the villagers to establish co-ops and use the elephants as an ecotourist attraction for their village. Ecotourism is when people travel to areas of the world and spend money in local communities, where proceeds benefit conservation of the local environment, native animals and the native people. Ecotourists and ecotourism companies minimize their negative impact on the environment and seek to connect travelers with real life conservation efforts.

Another organization, called the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), is researching tools to repel elephants from plantations and end farmer-elephant conflicts. One method they use is placing reflective windmills on farms to scare away the elephants. IEF has also developed an elephant-sized cattle crossing that uses rolling logs to deter elephants from entering a specific place. Elephants are chemically oriented, so they use their sense of smell to navigate through their habitat and determine the identity of other elephants. IEF is trying to identify certain smells that may keep elephants out of farmland.

Though all of these methods are great, there is one problem: elephants can sometimes be too smart for their own good. Mr. Ringer said methods might work a few times to deter elephants, but because of their high level of intelligence, they soon discover that whatever had scared them before wasn’t really scary. Once they learn this, researchers and conservationists find themselves going back to square one. It is a constant battle of wits trying to keep elephants out of farmland, but IEF is still researching new and better ways to get the job done.

Elephants in zoos are critical to helping their cousins in the wild. Elephant keepers like Ron Ringer and Steve Hebert not only keep the Zoo’s elephants in tiptop shape, they also raise awareness about the struggle to protect wild elephants. Some elephants have outwitted researchers so far, but with further research and some creativity, tensions between the elephants and their human neighbors can be relieved.

Libby, Conservation Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014

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