Entrance to Chobe National Park

Entrance to Chobe National Park

Rick is in Africa to see elephants. Read his previous post, Africa: From Gaborone to Kasane.

May 3, 2009 (Sunday)
What an amazing day!  We woke early to catch the 6:40 a.m. shuttle to the airport.  Though our flight was not until 9:30 a.m., we needed to catch the early shuttle because the later shuttle would have been too late to check in on time. The nice thing about getting to the airport early was it afforded us the time to sit and enjoy a very rich cup of African coffee.

The flight from Gaborone to Kasane took just under two hours in the twin turbo-prop airplane. It was actually a very nice flight, but due to the enormous thunderclouds over Botswana, we could not see much of the landscape below.

Arriving at Kasane’s single runway airport, we were met by Dr. Mike Chase and Kelly Landen, the two-person team that makes Elephants Without Borders (EWB) what it is.  The airport was small enough that the little entryway where we walked in was also the baggage claim area. The ground crew literally hand carried everyone’s luggage from the airplane to the doorway and just piled up the bags there.

Within minutes, we had loaded our gear into the EWB Land Rover and headed directly to the entry gates of Chobe National Park, a mere five-minute drive from the airport. During the ride, Kelly explained to us that the park has no fence and that the animals come and go as they please. (This was evident by the many different animal droppings all along the road).

Dr. Chase and Kelly told us that they had already set up camp about 25 miles (40 kilometers) into the park and it should take us a little over an hour to get there. For the most part, the drive was along a single-lane dirt trail that occasionally widened to a lane-and-a-half.  Within minutes of entering the park we saw our first animal, a handsome male impala.  Little did we know that he was the first of hundreds of impala that we would see during this adventure. Further along, we started seeing red-beaked hornbills, lilac-breasted rollers, a couple of fish eagles, and countless other birds.

A pod of hippos

A pod of hippos

At one point, Dr. Chase stopped the Land Rover suddenly and pointed to the flooded river just to the right of the road, “Look, look, a pod of hippos. Do you see them?”  Sure enough, a pod of at least 25 hippos was gathered in the water just offshore. Their backs and the tops of their heads, all slightly above water line, looked much like a cluster of large boulders poking through the surface of the water.

Continuing on down the dirt road, we paralleled the river much of the way.  It wasn’t long before we saw our first herd of about seven elephants feeding on a few trees near the road. The only one to acknowledge our arrival was a youngster who looked to be about  two or three years old.

It was the first time I had ever seen elephants in the wild, and it was just amazing. Trying to take it all in and enjoy it for what it was, I also wanted to take a few photos, too.  I snapped a few shots and then just stared in quiet amazement; it was truly an exceptional moment in my life as I watched the family interact and feed.

Not too long after we came across the small herd, the matriarch decided it was time to move on.  With a slight toss of her head she started to walk away and the rest of the herd stopped browsing and followed her immediately.

Rick's tent at camp


I could go on and on writing of each and every encounter with different elephant herds, giraffe, and impala, but I would need another day or two of just writing.  It has been an amazing day with an incalculable amount of animals all within a few meters to maybe two dozen meters from the truck.  Just to give you an idea, here is a list (beyond what I already mentioned) of what we encountered today: kudu, at least 15 giraffes, waterbuck, 3 different troops of baboons, about 10 water buffalo, 3 crocodiles, an Egyptian goose family, 3 or 4 fish eagles, countless Guinea foul, 5 or 6 ground hornbills, countless red beaked hornbills, hundreds of other birds, a good-sized water monitor, and an incredibly beautiful encounter with a female lion and her cub right before sunset! Oh, and I should tell you we saw fresh leopard droppings, but no leopard.

As night approached so did a very large thunderstorm. We could see it to the south of us, lighting dancing across the horizon within the clouds.

Tomorrow we start setting up to track the collared elephants that may be in the area.  Our goal is to catch up to one or two of these animals to see how they are doing.

To support our elephant conservation work in Africa and learn more, visit the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy.

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


Africa: From Gaborone to Kasane

See Rick’s previous blog, Where’s That Elephant Odyssey Ambassador Now?

May 2, 2009 (Saturday) – Day
Due to the limited number of flights (three per week between Gaborone and Kasane) Shea and I had to spend a day in Gaborone. We flew into Gaborone the night before and are going to fly out tomorrow morning, so we have today to ourselves—or so we thought.

Last night it rained quite a bit; however, this morning was gorgeous. The ground was still wet, but the clouds were breaking up a bit and the air smelled wonderfully fresh. We enjoyed a nice breakfast at the restaurant that is part of the hotel where we are staying and then went back to the airport. Seems odd, I know, since our flight to Kasane isn’t until tomorrow, but let me explain. When we arrived yesterday evening, five out of our six pieces of luggage didn’t arrive. (We have so many pieces of luggage because we are traveling with video equipment, cameras, etc.)

We are hopeful that the equipment will show up on the next flight from Johannesburg, and if not the morning flight, then hopefully the evening flight.

May 2, 2009 (Saturday) – Night
Just a quick note to let you all know our luggage has finally caught up with us. As of 6:45 p.m. (Botswana time), we had our luggage in hand, and after a brief stop through customs, we were back on the road to the hotel.Yay! I have never been so happy to see luggage before.

With everything in our possession, we are planning on keeping with our original schedule. In other words, we will be leaving the hotel at 6:40 a.m. to catch our flight to Kasane in northern Botswana. We have received an e-mail from Dr. Chase letting us know that he and his team will meet us at the airport, and we will be heading out into the field right away! The plan is to be back at the resort in Kasane by Wednesday night.

Please keep in mind I have yet to get the global broadband card to work. I do not know if that is because of the area we are in or if it is just not working. If it does not work once we are in the field, I will not be able to blog until Wednesday night. So if you do not hear from me until then, please know it is only because I do not have Internet access.

Until next time!

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

To support our elephant conservation work in Africa and learn more, visit the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy.

Read Rick’s previous post, Packing and Unpacking Pachyderms.


Where’s That Elephant Odyssey Ambassador Now?

I am not at the San Diego Zoo or at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. However, I am on my way to see elephants that are tracked by our partners at Elephants Without Borders.

That’s right, after spending over 21 hours in the air, on three different airplanes, making for 27 hours of travel from beginning to end, I am in Africa. More specifically, I am in Gaborone, Botswana, waiting for my connecting flight to Kasane, Botswana. Once the Zoo’s videographer, Shea Johnson, and I are in Kasane, we will join Dr. Michael Chase and his team to head out in the field for a few days and nights of tracking and research.

Thus far the most enjoyable flight was the flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Gaborone, Botswana. It was so enjoyable because of the sights we could see due to great flying conditions. In an hour’s time the smaller twin propeller plane took us from the big city over small villages and untouched lands, then on to the smaller (than Johannesburg) city of Gaborone.

It was beautiful as we started our descent toward the runway: the clouds were at a very high elevation, and the sun was low due to the day becoming evening. From my vantage point in the plane I could see a few kopjes just outside of town. These rock hills are old lava tubes that will usually have natural spring water coming up from the depths of the earth. The rock and water usually offer plant life a place to take hold, and usually the kopje will become a populated ecosystem with plants and animals. We even passed over two watering holes, marked by many narrow paths all coming together at the watering hole like the spokes of a wheel meeting at the hub.

I had hoped to be able to send daily blogs, but I am having trouble with the global broadband card for my computer. I am currently relying on whatever Internet connection I can find. Thankfully in the city that doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. However, once we are out in the field, I am pretty sure that Wi-Fi Internet is one thing that the kopjes don’t have!

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

To support our elephant conservation work in Africa and learn more, visit the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy.

Read Rick’s previous post, Packing and Unpacking Pachyderms.


Elephants: They’re Here

On Saturday, April 25, the elephant staff at the San Diego Zoo received four large gifts for Elephant Odyssey from the elephant staff at the Wild Animal Park. The four Asian elephants, Ranchipur, Cookie, Mary, and Cha Cha, arrived at their new home around 3:30 in the afternoon. By 6 p.m. they were all unloaded and checking out their new home.

Everyone, including the elephants, did an outstanding job of loading, transporting, and unloading. All four elephants made the trip with no problems, except maybe being a bit tired from the day’s activities. With an escort of about 25 California Highway Patrol officers, keepers, vet staff, and support staff, the trip from Escondido was flawless.

When the elephants arrived at the Zoo, we had a crane, forklifts, and staff ready to unload the elephants as quickly as possible. It was decided that Cha Cha would be first. After unloading her crate from the truck and putting it into position, the door was opened. Her keepers from the Wild Animal Park were there to encourage her to come out. It took awhile for her to build up the confidence to leave her crate, which she did several times only to go back in when she got a bit uncertain. What finally did the trick was when her keeper, Brian, dropped his hat into the chute area and she picked it up to hand it back. This behavior was one that the two of them had been doing for awhile. Cha Cha came right out and handed the hat back to Brian, and our first elephant was welcomed to her new exhibit!

Next was Ranchipur. He was unloaded the same way as Cha Cha. He, too, was a bit nervous, but his keepers kept him calm with their reassurances. Then it was decided to let him see his girlfriend, Cha Cha, and he came right out. Guess he figured if it was good enough for her…. So we were two down and two to go!

Cookie was the next elephant to be unloaded. Like the other two, her crate was placed in position, door opened, and she came right out when her keepers called. The fun thing with her was that she had to follow a different path into the Elephant Care Center. There were several doors and transfer areas to pass through, which she did without hesitation and went right to her keepers. Just one more to go!

As we did with the others, Mary’s crate was position and secured, the door opened and basically before we could react, Mary was in the stall with Cookie. There were some chirps from Cookie and spontaneous applause from everyone who was there to witness this monumental event.

I was lucky enough to be chosen, along with my fellow elephant keeper Scott, to be there until midnight to make sure everyone was settling in to their new environment. The elephants’ keepers set all four of them up for the night and said their good byes. It had been a long day for everyone, and it could not have gone better. Five of the keepers from the Wild Animal Park are going to stay and work at Elephant Odyssey, which will make the transition all the more easier. I can say it was a pleasure to see elephants roaming the new facility at night, and all of them were comfortable. I could tell, because all were pigging out on the fresh browse and hay that had been given to them!

Now it is our turn to duplicate the wonderful job that the Park’s elephant keepers have done. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we will be following the same path and getting the Zoo’s elephants loaded up and moved to Elephant Odyssey. The trip will just not be as far, and we won’t need the Highway Patrol as escorts!

Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Packing and Unpacking Pachyderms

We’ve all been waiting for it: the elephants have been in training; keepers and trainers have been working long-long hours; construction workers have been, well, constructing. And as of Saturday, it was done!

That’s right, on Saturday I was able to watch as the historic event of four magnificent Asian elephants (Ranchipur, Cha Cha, Mary, and Cookie) moved from the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park to the Zoo’s new Elephant Odyssey exhibit. Once they were all in, the trumpeting and rumbling began as everyone (humans included) celebrated the first group of animals to call Elephant Odyssey home.

Thanks to a dedicated team that includes (but far from limited to) trainers, keepers, veterinary staff, curators, operations staff, security, an amazing team of crane operators, and truck drivers and an escort provided by our local law enforcement, the move went very smoothly.

First thing in the morning the elephants went through their morning training sessions at the Wild Animal Park, which include walking into the elephant-sized crates like they do every morning. This time was a little different, of course, because they were asked to stay in the crates and then loaded onto the flatbed trucks that were going to take them 35 miles south to the San Diego Zoo. Everyone did quite well, and thanks to a very dedicated and experienced staff, every detail was well thought out well before the day even started.

Upon arrival to the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, the crew went to work immediately to unload the crates and let the elephants get acquainted with their new home. Cha Cha and Ranchipur were first, followed by Mary and Cookie. The elephants occasionally trumpeted and rumbled their approval as they enjoyed their dinner of hay, tree branches, yams, apples, and carrots. The staff, though not able to break for dinner yet, congratulated each other as they watched the very first residents of Elephant Odyssey settle in.

It wasn’t until the sun was setting that the first wave of us started to make our way home. (Of course, the overnight staff had already been there a while and was just getting started with their shift.) As I walked through the Zoo, empty of guests due to the late hour, it dawned on me the historic significance of the day: First, the largest exhibit in the San Diego Zoo’s history is one (large) step closer to opening. Second, we have also witnessed what can be accomplished with the dedication and planning of an amazing staff and the support of our members and community.

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


Looking for Elephant Odyssey Fun?

Can’t wait until May 23 for the grand opening? Want some Elephant Odyssey fun in your own home or office?

Hard to believe, but the Web team at the San Diego Zoo has outdone themselves yet again. Elephant Odyssey.com has an interactive map, videos, and information on the animals of the Pleistocene and the animals of today! Heck, there’s even a page where you can read up on the individual elephants that will live there.

Still not enough for you? Well, now there’s a fun computer game, too: Elephant Odyssey: The Game! It just launched this week and is already causing people to lose track of time (due to playing it and having fun) as they wander back in time through the Pleistocene epoch.

I have to admit, when I first started playing it I thought it looked rather basic in design. But then nearly an hour later (honestly, it only felt like 10 minutes), I couldn’t wait to see the next challenge and the next level.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I will offer you some things to remember while you play (these are things I found out the hard way). First, remember that your elephant needs to eat! At first I was too interested in the next animal encounter to pay attention to my “energy.” Bad idea, you have to eat to keep playing! Next hint: be careful of things that might fall on you or things that might fall away from under your feet. Also, saber-toothed cats are predators; they don’t use their mouth to talk to you like the other creatures, if you know what I mean. I could go on, but don’t want to give it all away.

Most important, this game falls into the age group “kids of all ages,” like most things at the Zoo. That means adults, too! There’s no doubt I’ll be playing this at home with the family. Might even have a little Elephant Odyssey: The Game throw-down-challenge to see who will reign supreme champion at the Elephant Odyssey Ambassador’s residence!

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


Bones, Statues, and Trees

I know it has been a while since I have corresponded here on the blog. However, it is nothing to worry about, my lack of writing time is all for a good reason! (Read Rick’s previous blog, Statue Tour: Educating Kids, Wowing Adults.) Since returning from the Statue Tour a few weeks ago, I have been very busy doing interviews on radio, television, and with print media. There was even a day where I gave a presentation during a luncheon and did media interviews before and after at a different location within the Zoo. Whew, that was a eventful day! Yesterday was no different, as I was on local television and national radio all within a couple of hours and all before it was 10:30 a.m.!

I was fortunate enough to catch up with the statues, which we drove across the country, shortly after we arrived in San Diego. It was great to see how perfectly they fit into the Mammoth Plaza of Elephant Odyssey (see photo above).

With all of those done, I wanted to quickly bring you up to speed on how things are going at Elephant Odyssey. Then just a few days ago, I was out on the construction site again for some interviews about Elephant Odyssey, and I was so amazed at how much had been accomplished by the construction crews. In just a little over a week’s time the Fossil Portal had dirt walls with bones exposed, and trees and plants were being put into place. Further down the trail, the elephants’ pool was full and the on-site water purification facility was being put through its paces. I was really taken with the size and structure of the “utilitrees” that have been built right there on site. These man-made trees are 25 feet (7.6 meters) tall and will offer a wide variety of enrichment opportunities for the elephants, plus cool mist in the summer and heaters in the winter.

I am so impressed with how everything is really taking shape. I feel so lucky to have seen it all come together over the past few months. And to think we still have a little over a month until we open. I can’t wait!

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


Elephants on the Move: Preparation

It is an exciting time to be a part of the San Diego Zoo! Whether you are an employee, a Zoo member, or a guest, everyone is talking about the future opening of Elephant Odyssey, the Zoo’s newest exhibit. With just under two months before the grand opening, much is being done to prepare and train the elephants for their relocation.

Many people ask, “Why can’t we simply walk the elephants to their new exhibit?”

A great question! It does seem like it would be a lot easier to move the elephants by walking them from Elephant Mesa to the new exhibit space in Elephant Odyssey; however, one can encounter several potential problems. Health and safety are our biggest concerns when moving animals. We want to make sure that the animal being moved is in the safest situation as well as those who are working around her and those animals in nearby exhibits. All animals, domesticated, in zoos, or wild, react differently to unexpected situations, which could lead to a life-threatening injury. The only way to guarantee the safest possible scenario with all people and animals involved is in a controlled environment. In this case, our best controlled environment is with the use of a crate. When the elephants are crated, they are restricted from causing significant injuries to themselves or others.

Currently, the three elephants at the Zoo (Tembo, Sumithi, and Devi) have nearly completed their crate training. When visiting the elephants at the Zoo, you cannot miss the giant metal crate on exhibit. For the past year, all three elephants have been working with their keepers to become comfortable with entering into this crate for transportation. The idea of training an animal to walk into a crate sounds like an easy task at first, but in all actuality, it can be quite a challenge. Most animals do not like the idea of entering into an unfamiliar object, especially one which comes to a dead end. The fear of being trapped can overwhelm even the most domestic of pets, let alone a 9,000-pound elephant. Keepers have been working diligently with the elephants by taking one step at a time to gain the animals’ trust, ensure their success, and more importantly, their safety.

Training began the moment the “girls” saw the crate for the first time on exhibit. With both doors open on opposite ends of the crate, a sense of curiosity was observed on behalf of the three soon-to-be travelers when they explored the outer framework with their trunks. As a result of the keepers placing food items on and around the crate, the elephants quickly lost any possible apprehension of walking through.

The crates we are using have an outer solid door and an inner set of slide bars on both ends. When training the girls to enter into the crate with a dead end, we only use the slide bars, which allow for the elephant to see out and to receive consistent positive food reinforcement. Keepers use food favorites from the girls’ normal daily diet while training, such as raisins, watermelon, and alfalfa hay. Tembo, our most food-motivated elephant, to no one’s surprise appeared to be the most eager to work in the crate. In fact, at times, keepers needed to slow her down because she would anticipate and perform the actions before being asked the behavior.

Training both learned and unlearned behaviors is a never-ending task among all keepers. As a result, crate training will continue with the elephants up until the day they are transported into their new home. On that day, the girls will each be placed in their own crate just as they have experienced for the past several months during training. Once secured in the crate, the slide bars will be placed on the opposite end of the crate, and both outer solid doors can be easily shut, completely enclosing the animal with minimal impact and maximum safety. Within moments after being in the crate, we expect the elephants to arrive and calmly be released into their new exhibit at Elephant Odyssey!

The grand opening is scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend, but there is much more that will take place between now and then, including the initial introduction of the Asian elephants from the Wild Animal Park with our existing group at the Zoo. We are all anxiously awaiting this moment and look forward to sharing those experiences with you!

Mike Langridge is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


The Right Stuff



It is hard to believe that the opening of Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo is just around the corner. All of the elephant keepers are very excited about moving into our new digs! But before that happens, there are several things that need to be accomplished first. One of those is getting full physicals on all three of the elephants at the Zoo so we can have baseline data on them. This includes: eye and mouth exams, urine and blood tests, fecals, TB tests, and full-body exams. As keepers, it is our responsibility to train the elephants to participate in all of these behaviors so we don’t have to immobilize them.

One of the more difficult behaviors was training them to allow the keepers to take blood from a vein in their ears or leg. This is done inside their chute area where we can safely access the elephants from all sides. Like me, they aren’t that thrilled about needles, but after months of de-sensitizing them to the process and finding the right treat that they really like (to reward them for their cooperation) we have been able to collect blood on all three of them. My mom and dad learned when I was young that I would do most anything for a donut. The elephants are the same way. With Tembo, our African elephant female, it is just food in general! She is so food motivated, which makes her a dream to train. Devi, our youngest Asian elephant female, is a bit harder. Raisins seem to be one of her favorite foods, but that can change from day to day. Sumithi, our oldest Asian female, likes a variety of things, but a mixture of raisins and Cheerios seem to be one of the best treats for her.

Overall, the physical exams went very well. What ended up being the most difficult behavior was getting Sumithi to open up her mouth wide enough for the vets to see her bottom teeth. She has really big cheeks, and when she opens her mouth, the cheeks cover her bottom teeth. All of the treats we came up with were not enough to encourage her to open wide. It was time to bring out the heavy artillery! Sumithi loves peanut butter, so, using an old family recipe, I mixed chunky peanut butter, honey, and any type of breakfest cereal together and rolled the mixture into balls. This proved to be the right stuff! By rolling the treats on her tongue, she would open up wider than usual but not quite enough to see her teeth. We then decided to introduce a mirror on a telescopic handle, like the ones border patrol agents use to look under cars. Between this and the peanut butter balls, we were able to successfully see the bottom teeth and they looked great! Now every time I walk by with peanut butter balls she opens wide before I even ask her!

Now that we have finished all of their physicals, we have to continue training them to go inside their crates for the big day when they move from the Zoo’s Elephant Mesa to Elephant Odyssey. As of now, I can report that all three are ready to go! We are just waiting for the word.

Ron Ringer is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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


Statue Tour: Educating Kids, Wowing Adults

Wednesday, April 8, we found ourselves in the middle of a school yard surrounded by kids and adults, all asking questions and looking at the truckload of statues with wonderment. (Read Rick’s previous post, Statue Tour: Swinging through the Southwest.) Can you imagine being in your classroom and seeing a mammoth family and other Pleistocene animals drive up and park right next to your playground? I don’t know about you, but that definitely would have left an impression on me!

We were able to talk directly to over 80 elementary school students yesterday (and all the teachers and administrators that were there) about extinction and conservation. What a great opportunity! I absolutely love the enthusiasm children bring to this discussion, and many of these kids were very knowledgeable about fossils and what extinction means. From information about current species that are alive today to facts about our truckload of ancient animals, these kids were happy to learn more. My only regret is that we can’t go to every school in the nation.

One of my favorite things to do when working with kids is to ask them what they think and then just step back and listen to their ideas and knowledge. I asked this group, “Why do you think the San Diego Zoo is bringing a truckload of extinct animals to the Zoo all the way from Wisconsin?”

Their responses were perfect! One boy answered, “Because you guys want to teach us about extinction and animals.” And another girl replied, “The Zoo is trying to save animals and wants to show people the animals that are not here anymore.” Of course there we plenty of other great answers, but I can’t list them all.

After two hours of talking to the kids (8 groups every 15 minutes), I was exhausted but smiling from ear to ear. Matching each group’s energy and enthusiasm with my passion was very satisfying and personally rewarding for me.

Now I’m back in San Diego. In fact, by the time you read this I am sure the statues will be at the Zoo and probably being prepped for getting settled into their permanent home. This wraps up one of the many adventures I am having as Elephant Odyssey Ambassador!

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

Visit the Elephant Odyssey Web site for video of the statue tour.