African elephant herd


Taking Care of Tusks

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all?

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all? Click to enlarge.

As you know, there have been a lot of things going on with our African elephant herd this year at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. For instance, you may have seen our trainers working with the elephants in different areas. You may have wondered what they doing with the elephants’ faces! Well….

Some members of our herd have broken or chipped their tusks, and our veterinary staff has had to perform pulpotomies (think root canal) to clean out any infected pulp. All of our elephants are pretty active, especially the little ones, so we have had to put extra protection on the tusks that have fillings. This protection is in the form of a gray material called Technovit (pronounced Techno–vite), and you may have seen us putting it on the tusks of Musi, Macembe, and Luti periodically. Swazi recently broke off a small part of her tusk. No pulp was exposed, and you may see us filing the jagged end of her tusk.

Unfortunately, Khosi and Emanti’s tusks broke and exposed too much pulp, and we were not able to save their broken tusks. For them, we have been flushing their sulcus (skin and cavity surrounding a tusk) to keep the cavity clean and to aid in the healing process. We use a diluted mixture of anti-bacterial solution and water sprayed out of a one-gallon sprayer. Our trainers have worked patiently with Khosi and Emanti to make them comfortable with this process. I am happy to report that they are doing well and healing nicely.

Our elephants are also given vitamin E every day. We’ve trained our elephants to perform a swallow behavior so that they will be able to swallow any medication or vitamin supplements as needed. Because they have such a well-developed sense of smell and taste, we give them their vitamin E followed by mango juice, as the vitamin E doesn’t taste very good!

Qinisa and Inhlonipho are growing up and asserting themselves. Qinisa’s milk tusks are starting to come in. Inhlonipho is wrestling with Emanti and Ingadze any chance he gets. He even charged Msholo (who was quietly eating hay). Msholo looked at him and then went back to eating the hay. When Inhlonipho gets older, he will be wrestling with the big boys.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the herd, either in person or on Elephant Cam!

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Qinisa Turns 2.


An Enriched Elephant Herd

The kids enjoy an early-morning pool party.

The kids enjoy an early-morning pool party.

As chronicled in my last post, Tracking Safari Park Elephants, both keepers and researchers consistently strive to improve the welfare of our elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. One such way we can enhance welfare is through the use of enrichment. Enrichment provides our elephants with opportunities to engage in species-appropriate behaviors. Making changes to their social groupings, along with providing more variety in the types and amounts of browse food items given, has proved extremely beneficial. The separation and reuniting of individuals from yard to yard encourages heightened levels of social behavior. Access to bodies of water can encourage everything from taking a simple drink to providing a good place to cool off, and is occasionally a great venue for a full-on pool party!

Vus'Musi and Msholo spar.

Vus’musi and Msholo spar.

Our overarching aim is to maintain a high diversity of positive naturalistic behaviors: we want our elephants to be elephants, and it takes a lot of work to ensure they receive those opportunities. Every morning, keepers go over the plan for the day, and that plan always involves some type of enrichment. One of my personal favorites is when a fresh mud bog is made in the west yard, a task that requires much skill to produce the perfect consistency of mud. The elephants then get to spend the day wallowing, playing, and cooling off in it. Feeder puzzles are another fun device. Some are round while some are rectangular, and all are filled with alfalfa pellets or fresh hay. To get to the food product inside, the elephants have to kick, push, and use their heads (literally and figuratively!), all of which provides them with both mental and physical stimulation while satisfying their appetite.

Swazi reaches up to a hay pile above her head with Msholo, Mac, Emanti, Kami, and Qinisa nearby.

Swazi reaches up to a hay pile above her head with Msholo, Mac, Emanti, Kami, and Qinisa nearby.

Because enrichment is deployed every day, creative minds have to band together to keep the environment as unpredictable as possible. One recent example of this is the variety of produce that is now being introduced (such as romaine lettuce, cucumbers, and celery) to go along with the alfalfa pellets that the elephants receive. Another example is the frequent change in placement of common enrichment products. The Boomer Ball that was previously in the east yard may show up the next day in the pool of the west yard. Even celebrating the birthday of an elephant switches up the herd’s diet and overall schedule, and because it doesn’t happen every day, it is also a very enriching event.

There are many ways to keep the elephants both mentally and physically engaged with their environment, but all require teamwork, scattered scheduling, and creative minds. The next time you’re watching Elephant Cam or visiting our African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, keep an eye out for any interesting behaviors or interactions resulting from our enrichment efforts. Maybe M’sholo and Vus’musi will be playing in the pool. Perhaps Kami will be kicking around a feeder puzzle, or Swazi will munch on some alfalfa hay. Whichever behaviors you observe, you’ll be witnessing the results of our efforts to ensure that our herd is fully enriched!

Charlotte Hacker is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Elephant Msholo: Day & Night

The mighty and majestic Msholo is a wonderful part of the Safari Park's African elephant herd.

The mighty and majestic Msholo is a wonderful part of the Safari Park’s African elephant herd.

Successfully managing a large herd of African elephants is an ever-changing and challenging task for us here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our decisions on which animals go where and with whom and at what time and for how long is just part of our daily planning, and it changes in some form or another on a daily basis. Let’s take a look at our adult bull Msholo’s activities.

Msholo is out with the entire herd almost every day but is always separated from the rest of the herd at night. Why? He is a large, adult bull and is capable of basically doing whatever he wants to do when he’s with any member of the herd. When he’s out with the herd during the day, we consider this a “supervised” social arrangement, in that we can intervene if we feel we absolutely have to. We haven’t had to, because he’s such a wonderful bull. His tractability and willingness to separate whenever we need him to is probably the result of our relationship, training, and management of him.

Where Msholo spends his evenings is decided by space availability, weather conditions, previous nighttime arrangements, which elephants would be adjacent to his yard, etc. He’s always separated from nine-year-old Vus’musi by at least two barriers. Why? “Moose” loves to play fight through the cables/chains/gates/barriers; this goes back to his days when he would do this whenever he could. His play reminds me of that hand-slap game we used to play as kids!

Because Moose seems to possess that magic touch of pushing the right buttons to antagonize whichever elephant is on the other side, we feel that if he is right next to Msholo, somebody is going to get injured, or break their tusks, or destroy the barrier. So, we make sure the two guys are separated by at least two barriers at night.

We obviously want to give Msholo as much space as possible whenever we can, but the larger yards are made available to the larger groupings. Things can change, and they always do with a very dynamic social group.
As the calves get bigger, perhaps we’ll have to establish a bachelor herd of boys, and Msholo can have company in that scenario, or maybe he’ll get to spend some evenings with the entire herd like he does during the day. We do our best to safely make the best herd management decisions based on many factors.

Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Mabu and Family.


Early Mornings at Elephants



After doing 24-hour watches for each calf born to our African elephant herd at the Safari Park, we keepers have had the opportunity to watch a lot of early morning behavior from all the elephants. We have noticed that during this time the elephants tend to be very playful. You may see things such as walking forward or backward, head bobbing, sitting, lying down, tusking the ground, kicking logs or other toys in the yard, chasing each other, trunk wrestling with each other, making a dog pile (mostly with the youngsters), swimming, trumpeting, ear flaring, mock charging items in their environment… the list is endless. One thing is for sure, they are fun to watch any time of day!

Mindy Albright is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Treat Time.


Loss to Elephant Family

Umoya with her son, Emanti, last year.

Today the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and its African elephant herd are mourning the death of the spirited Umoya. As the mother of two calves, Phakamile and Emanti, she will be missed not only by these two but by the entire herd and the keepers who have worked so closely with her since she arrived at the Park in 2003.

Moya, as we called her, was 21 years old. She was born in Kruger National Park and was one of the original seven African elephants rescued from Swaziland from being culled because of an elephant overpopulation. She could often be seen walking backward in the exhibit, making her quick to identify among the females. Moya enjoyed training sessions with the keepers and was a very quick learner. Most importantly, she was a good mother.

Phakamile, or Kami for short, was born in 2007. Moya immediately cared for her first calf, keeping her close and making sure she grew healthy and strong. In 2010, Moya gave birth to Emanti, a male who is now 18 months old and just at the weaning stage. He will surely miss the caring reach of his mother’s trunk and her protective instincts, but he will have his big sister by his side. Kami has always been a good sister and even a good cousin, reaching out to all the younger calves.

Because the elephants live a natural herd structure, we believe their social interactions will keep Emanti and Kami safe and cared for. Their “aunties”—the other adult females—have always been known to care for each other’s calves, even encircling the calves when they think there is a problem. Some calves have even been seen nursing from their lactating aunts. Emanti should no longer need his mother’s milk. He has been eating solids for quite some time, and if this morning was any indication, he should progress well among the social unit that is the Park’s African elephant herd.

As they do in the wild, the herd was offered an opportunity to mourn Moya. The elephants came to see Moya after she died—some touched her with their trunks and others simply stood by her. By her side were Kami and Emanti, but once the others began to walk away, the two youngsters followed their aunts to an adjoining yard.

Animal care staff discovered Umoya lying down with injuries when they arrived at the Safari Park early Thursday morning. The injuries indicated there might have been an aggressive interaction with another elephant. We thank you in advance for all your well wishes and know that you, too, will feel this loss.

Yadira Galindo is a senior public relations specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Valentine’s Day, Mammoth Style.


Park Elephant Calves Update

Baby with two of his family members

Our elephant keepers are a busy lot, but Animal Care Manager Curtis Lehman graciously took some time to fill me in on the Safari Park’s growing African elephant herd.

The newest cutie, I mean calf, is doing great! He now weighs 340 pounds (154 kilograms), nurses throughout the day, and is mouthing food items in preparation for when those handy teeth come in (usually at about three to four months of age). Baby has not received a name yet, but that’s not a problem with the herd. The little guy has quite the social life, as all the calves like to play with him. And he always has a sibling or two to keep him company as well. Big sister Khosi and half sister Kami both dote on him and like to keep him close; big brother Ingadze doesn’t seem to mind having a baby brother, and Curtis says he never noticed any jealousy on Ingadze’s part when Baby arrived on the scene. Khosi and Ingadze do such a good job of keeping an eye out for Baby that mom Umngani is probably the most rested of any of our elephant moms!

One talent Baby has displayed is vocalizing, screaming quite loudly (it sounds like a lion’s roar!) if he accidently gets too far from Mom or gets pushed around by Swazi. “It’s amazing how loud the calves can roar whenever they’re upset about something,” Curtis says. “You can hear them from the other yard. We get desensitized to the roar, like most of the mom’s do, and we can discriminate between the ‘serious’ calls and the ‘not so serious’ ones. Sundzu can also roar quite loudly, just like his older brother Impunga used to do.”

Speaking of Sundzu, Curtis says he is the most keeper oriented of the calves, although they all seem to enjoy the attention the keepers provide. Keepers work with the calves to teach them basic husbandry commands, such as lifting up a foot when asked or leaning the sides of their bodies in for an inspection. Of all the calves, Macembe, or “Mac,” has been the training star. As the son of the herd leader, Swazi, he is naturally fearless and independent—nothing seems to bother him, and for him, training is just a fun way to get more treats! At the other end of the spectrum is Luti, who is cautious of anything new or unusual.

One quickly gets the feeling that things are never dull at the Safari Park’s elephant habitat!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor and blog moderator for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Bai Yun: 20th Birthday.


Elephant Calf Learns the Ropes

Umngani leads Ingadzi, Kami, and Khosi.

Umngani leads Ingadze, Kami, and Khosi.

If you haven’t made it up to the Wild Animal Park to see our new baby elephant, you’d better hurry: he is growing up fast! (See post, Baby Elephant.) At only 3 months of age, Ingadze is almost 400 pounds (180 kilograms) and is quickly learning the tricks to being an African elephant.

Just this past week he learned how to swim in the big pool. Using his trunk as a snorkel, he followed mom Umngani out into the deep end, doggy paddling the whole way with big sister Khosi and half sister Kami there to help. When they are in the shallow end, all the elephant youngsters like to dog pile onto one another; Khosi and Kami, always with a watchful eye, make sure the boys Impunga and Musi don’t play too rough.

Khosi and Ingadzi stay close to Umngani.

Khosi and Ingadze with Umngani.

Each day Ingadze grows more curious about his home. He is constantly picking up sticks and even tries to pick up rocks that are too heavy for him. He seems to enjoy water and learned how to drink with his trunk at a young age. Ingadze has many older siblings to look up to and learn from, but his two favorite pals are big sisters Khosi and Kami. Kami often leads Ingadze away from the adults, as if playing mom to him.

Ingadze, Kami, and Khosi follow Umngani.

Ingadze, Kami, and Khosi follow Umngani.

Ingadze is full of personality and spunk and seems to seek out playtime with the keepers. Being weighed every day to monitor his growth gives us extra time to spend with him, and he seems to enjoy the attention. Positive interactions now lay the groundwork for future training sessions he will receive once old enough to eat solid foods more regularly.

So make sure to come visit Ingadze and his growing family at the Wild Animal Park. Don’t forget your cameras!!!

Laurie Amador and Mindy Albright are keepers at the Wild Animal Park.

Watch the Wild Animal Park’s elephants daily on Elephant Cam.


Sleeping Giants

Swazi enjoys a nap.

Swazi enjoys a nap.

My favorite time to be with the African elephant herd at the Wild Animal Park is in the early morning. A few days each week, I sit at the Elephant Overlook between 6:30 and 8:30 in the morning and record the social interactions in the herd. This is a great time to look for social behavior because it is before the elephant keepers and the guests arrive, so the elephants are busy interacting with each other rather than with humans. The herd also tends to be very active in the early morning and oftentimes I find they are wandering the yard, trunk wrestling or even swimming in the pool!

However, one morning a few weeks ago the elephants weren’t active at all; in fact, quite a few of our elephants were still asleep! I am frequently asked how elephants sleep, and you may be surprised to hear that they do sleep lying down. The popular assumption is that elephants always sleep standing up, which can be true for a quick cat nap. However, elephants lie down on the ground when they sleep soundly for a few hours each night. There are even records of elephants snoring while deep in sleep! I have also seen at least one of our adult females, Swazi, kicking her feet while sleeping, much like dogs do when they are dreaming.

We are continually learning about the nighttime patterns of the herd through the data we are collecting from our elephants’ GPS collars, which are worn for 24-hour periods to record their movements (see post, How Far Do Elephants Walk in One Day?). We are able to plot the GPS points onto a map of the Wild Animal Park elephant yard and see exactly where that elephant was at any given time. What we have found is that some of our elephants may have preferred sleeping spots, as noted by repeated GPS points in certain locations over a few nighttime hours. For example, it seems our dominant female, Swazi, wanders into the indoor barn to sleep for a few hours, whereas another female, Ndula, seems to prefer the pool at the far end of the yard (when it is empty, of course!). So our GPS collars not only tell us how far the elephants walk and where they walk, but also let us know where they like to sleep.

Emily Rothwell is a Heller Fellow Research Associate with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Watch the Park’s elephants daily on Elephant Cam.