african elephant


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 1


Vus’musi, seen here in 2012 at the Safari Park, was recently relocated to the Fresno Chafee Zoo.

Vus’musi, the first-born calf of the Safari Park’s herd, recently moved to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Affectionately known as “Moose” or “’Musi,” he holds a special place in the hearts of many members, blog readers, and Elephant Cam viewers, so we wanted to share the inside story of his “big adventure.”

Born on February 23, 2004, African elephant Vus’musi has grown into a young, handsome bull that outweighs each of the adult females in the Park’s herd. Known to his keepers as “Moose” or “‘Musi,” his genetics put a high value on him as a potential breeder for any zoo wanting to breed this species (including the Safari Park, someday in the future). His sire was a wild, unknown bull from Africa and his mom is our adult female, Ndlulamitsi. Within our current herd, he’s only related to his mom and his half brother, Lutsandvo. Most of you are no doubt wondering why ‘Musi was moved—excellent question!

Elephant natural history provides part of the answer. Behaviorally speaking, males eventually get displaced out of the herd in their early teens, so it was just a matter of time before Ndlulamitsi would have started to displace him more than she already had. Also, as ‘Musi matured he would eventually start going into musth—and it’s during these times of elevated testosterone that the youngster’s sparring with our adult bull, Msholo, would have gone from playful to assertive, aggressive behavior in an attempt to establish dominance. We always kept the two males apart overnight, because they enjoyed sparring so much that we thought that there was a greater chance for chipped tusks (or worse) if they were together. Keeping them apart when they were both in musth would have proven quite a challenge for us, had we kept both males at the Park.

Another reason for moving ‘Musi is his genetics, which placed him high on the Species Survival Plan (SSP) list of recommended bulls for breeding. Also, Fresno Chaffee Zoo was in the near-completion phase of its new African Adventure exhibit, had acquired two females from a sanctuary in Arkansas, and was looking for a bull to breed its two females. And Fresno Chaffee Zoo Director Scott Barton was quite familiar with our program and our elephants, as he had been involved with our move of five other herd members to Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, when he was director there. Altogether, it was deemed a good fit for ‘Musi.

‘Musi was Msholo’s favorite sparring partner. He was also, arguably, our best trained elephant, having been born into our training system and having had the luxury of getting lots of attention and individual sessions at an early age, and throughout his life. Easily a favorite among his keepers, ‘Musi’s demeanor is so calm and relaxed that many a new keeper “cut their teeth” with him, learning the techniques and philosophy of our positive, trust-based training system. Keith Crew, a senior keeper, has been one of ‘Musi’s primary trainers the entire 11 ½ years, and much of ‘Musi’s attitude and behavioral repertoire can be attributed to Keith’s long-term care of him. So, in answer to the question in your mind right now, the answer is yes, we all love our ‘Musi-boy, and we are excited for the next chapter in his life.

In Parts 2 and 3, I’ll tell you a little more about ‘Musi’s new home and herd mates—and all the planning and care that goes into relocating a much beloved, 7,500-pound African elephant.

Stay tuned!

Curtis is the elephant supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, A Tusk Task.


World Elephant Day

Christine Browne-Nuñez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

Christine Browne-Nunez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

World Elephant Day, launched on August 12, 2012, is now an annual event intended to celebrate this beautiful and majestic mammal and to bring attention to the plight of Asian and African elephants and the numerous threats they face. Sadly, elephant tusks are one of the major reasons elephants are threatened. Elephant tusks are made into ivory carvings, jewelry, chopsticks, and other such trinkets. Some people in the world believe that elephant tusks fall out, like baby teeth in humans, and, to collect the ivory, all one needs to do is gather those fallen tusks off the ground. The truth, however, is that tusks are permanent and grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. In order to get the ivory, the elephant is illegally killed. Because of the high demand for ivory, elephants are currently being killed at an alarming rate. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 35,000 elephants were poached in Africa last year.

My work with elephants began in 1995 as a manager of a volunteer conservation education program at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, where local and international visitors came to see baby elephants and learn about elephant ecology and conservation. It was at the Trust that I witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by poaching, as many of the traumatized orphaned elephants had lost their mothers to the ivory trade. The good news is, individuals, organizations, such as DSWT, and governments around the world are working hard to bring an end to poaching by educating people about the real costs of ivory and by enforcing national and international laws that make it illegal to collect, sell, or buy ivory.

Many values are associated with elephants, which is, in part, why conserving elephants is a complex task. From an ecological perspective, the elephant has important roles in the environment. It is sometimes called an ecosystem engineer, with complex effects on its habitat and species diversity. It modifies its environment through activities such as seed dispersal, tree felling, bark stripping, and the creation of waterholes. From a social perspective, the many elephant lovers around the world appreciate that elephants are intelligent, social animals that communicate with others near and far, maintain strong family bonds throughout their lives, and have life stages parallel to those of humans. Additionally, many elephant behaviors, such as those demonstrated in greeting ceremonies or when standing over and covering a dead body or bones, are interpreted as displays of emotion. Elephants also have economic value at the local and national level by attracting tourists for consumptive and non-consumptive use.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nunez.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

Whereas the elephant is admired by many people around the world, not all people view elephants positively. About 70 percent of the elephant’s range lies outside protected areas on lands often occupied by people, highlighting the importance of maintaining private lands as viable elephant habitat. Therefore, conservation efforts aimed at protecting the elephant and securing habitat for its long-term survival need to be based on both ecological and human-dimensions information.

People and elephants have coexisted for millennia with varying levels and types of interaction, but negative interactions known as human-elephant conflict (HEC) are perceived to be on the rise in some places. Human-elephant conflict can come in many forms and result in property damage and injury and death of both people and elephants. Crop depredation, the most common form of HEC, is a critical issue in elephant conservation, especially as more land is converted to agriculture. In pastoral areas such as Maasailand, where I conducted research, coexistence is threatened as a result of the evolving socio-economic landscape.

The Maasai people living around Amboseli National Park, Kenya, located at the foot of the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro, are traditionally semi-nomadic livestock herders. This livelihood practice facilitated their coexistence with wildlife, including elephants, in the Amboseli ecosystem for hundreds of years, but changes brought about by government policy, conservation policy, and immigration of peoples from other cultures has had a significant and on-going impact on their way of life. With more land under the plow and increasing competition for resources resulting from population growth, the level of conflict was on the rise.

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

My research found the Maasai were divided in their willingness to tolerate elephants on their lands. At the core of this division were perceptions about costs, resulting from HEC, versus benefits, namely tourist revenue. Conservationists working in this and other ecosystems are continually working to find solutions to HEC in order to secure long-term habitat for elephants. In Amboseli, such solutions include electric fencing around agricultural areas, compensation payments for loss of human life, consolation payments for livestock killed by elephants on private lands, and ecotourism schemes. My research found only a minority of local Maasai were aware of, or fully understood, these interventions, but of those, attitudes tended to be more positive. Conservation education and communication programs, such as those developed by our Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global, can increase awareness of these types of conservation activities and provide knowledge and skills to empower local people in managing and conserving wildlife.

It is evident that people have and will continue to determine the fate of the elephant. African savanna elephants will become extinct by 2020 if the threats to elephants are not adequately addressed. A vital component of conservation is understanding and influencing human actions. Ongoing ecological and social science research is needed in the varied settings in which people and elephants coexist in order to provide information for developing, monitoring, and adapting methods for protecting both species. Developing community-based conservation programs that include conservation education and communication is one of the many things we do here at the Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global.

Support the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy in its efforts to conserve elephants and elephant habitat. With your help, we can bring elephants back from the brink of extinction!

Christine Browne-Nuñez, Ph.D., is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Elephant Mila Applies Her Social Skills

Mila, right, and Mary share a snack of acacia browse.

Mila, right, and Mary share a snack of acacia browse.

Some of you may be wondering how our newest elephant, Mila, is fitting into the family here at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. Mila had not seen another elephant in approximately 35 years before she came to the Zoo in November 2013 (see post Welcome, Elephant Mila). We were excited to let her meet our herd of five female elephants but knew that we needed to take it slow in order to give Mila the best chance of fitting in. So, after her quarantine period ended in January 2014, we began the introduction process.

We started by letting Mila meet Mary, a 50-year-old Asian elephant and our most dominant female (see post Elephants Mila and Mary Meet). After a little pushing and shoving, which is how elephants establish dominance, Mila and Mary became fast friends and are often seen spending time together in the yard.

Our next step was adding Shaba, a 34-year-old African elephant, to the mix. When Mila met Shaba, she had a nervous few days trying to figure out this elephant who looked like her but had longer tusks! She used all the social skills she had learned from meeting Mary, and they now get along. We then gave Mila some time to bond with Mary and Shaba before introducing her to more of the girls.

Once Mary, Mila, and Shaba were able to be together 24 hours a day, we let Mila meet Sumithi, a 47-year-old Asian elephant, and then Devi, a 37-year-old Asian elephant. Once again, our smart girl Mila applied her new social skills and ability to navigate the exhibit and be “under the radar,” and the introductions went great—Mila had now met four of our five female elephants!

Tembo, a 42-year-old African elephant, was the last girl Mila needed to be introduced to; however, we wanted to give Mila some time to bond and adjust to her new herd before she met Tembo, who is usually a little more animated and intimidating than the other elephants. After a few weeks of spending her days with Mary, Shaba, Sumithi, and Devi, and her nights with Mary and Shaba, we decided it was time for Mila to meet Tembo. On July 8, we put all six of the girls together for the first time, and, much to our relief, Tembo and Mila did great together! There has been a little pushing and chasing from Tembo as she asserts her dominance, but overall, they are getting along well.

Another step we have taken in the last few days is having Mila spend the night with not only Shaba and Mary but Devi and Sumithi as well. They have access to three of our four yards and have the ability to spread out to eat or interact as they chose. So far, they are all doing well together, which is exciting because it puts us one step closer to having all six of our female elephants living together in a group the majority of the time.

It’s been a slow process, but it’s worth the time and the effort knowing that after 35 years of being alone, Mila will finally have a herd she can call her own. The next time you visit the Zoo, make sure to stop by Elephant Odyssey so you’ll have the chance to see all six of our female elephants out in the yard together.

Lori Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Elephant Khosi and Her Tusk

Two of our elephants spend a relaxing afternoon at the Safari Park.

Neepo and big sister Khosi spend a relaxing afternoon at the Safari Park after her procedure.

Today, August 29, 2013, Khosi, a 6-year-old African elephant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, had a procedure to remove the distinctive metal cap that was protecting the tip of her right tusk. After radiographs were taken of her tusk at the beginning of August to determine the growth of the dentine bridge, our veterinarians concluded that it had filled in enough to safely remove the cap.

Keepers have been training Khosi for the procedure for the last three weeks, and today it was removed without any problems. She is now a little more difficult to identify without the metal cap! Khosi is now back out with the herd and enjoying all the treats that were set out for them today.

Mindy Albright is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Elephant Swazi Update: Baby Due?

African elephant Swazi’s due-date range, according to all our calf data, was to fall between July 25 and August 24. We can see that the baby is situated mostly on her right side and is still up high, so physically we don’t see any changes yet. We get and send in her daily urine samples to our lab here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, with a turnaround time for results about two days later. Her progesterone levels haven’t dipped down below a number consistently with what we’d consider pre-labor (2 to 4 days away) levels. Regardless, baby will come when baby will come!

It looks like it won’t be this week at least. Schedules, staff, and volunteers are all on standby; we just don’t want to start too early and get burned out like we did with Umngani’s first (way back in the day). If we don’t see anything happening soon, I might start night watches anyway, because I’m getting antsy myself!

We did miss Luty and Tsundzu’s births (Emanti’s didn’t count because we were busy with Mac’s night watch), so births can come on rather quickly, and I’d like to try and film the birth for research purposes if we get lucky enough and there’s some light to see it. We may get lucky and see her drop her mucus plug or actually see the water break, but that’s been very rare for us, since most births have been under darkness.

Swazi is still nursing Macembe, so he’s in for a rude awakening soon. Since she is the dominant female, this being her second calf, and we’ve had three born out in the main east yard, we’re not overly concerned if Swazi were to give birth out in the main east yard. Having her give birth in the holding yard allows for filming, better observations, safety, and simpler separations away from others if we feel they might hinder her bonding time or if we have to intervene. I think Macembe will be the only one in with her this time. I’m sure they wouldn’t want to be in close quarters with her anyway—she’s pretty bossy!

Gotta go. Busy, busy busy.

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

Watch our elephants daily on Elephant Cam.


Aerial Survey of Mammoth Importance

The San Diego Zoo collaborates on elephant conservation in Africa with the nonprofit organization Elephants Without Borders, based in Botswana. Read Kelli’s previous post, Wild Elephant Rainbow Spirit.

Elephants are plentiful along the Chobe River.

We are very pleased to share with everyone what has kept Elephants Without Borders (EWB) busy the last few months in the field. With the support of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife & National Parks and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, we finally completed flying a mammoth aerial survey, counting elephants and wildlife species throughout northern Botswana. Piloted by Mike Holding, our 4-member survey team flew the  last 3 months, approximately. 250 hours, in a small, single-engine plane to complete the survey. The distance we covered was about 43,000 kilometers (26, 720 miles), flying along straight transect lines over Botswana’s varied terrain. That amount of flying is longer than the circumference of the Earth at the equator!

The study area essentially encompassed the entire elephant range in northern Botswana of approximately 115,800 square kilometers (44,710 square miles). Over high density wildlife areas, such the Okavango Delta, the sampling coverage was about 22 percent, the highest survey coverage ever flown over a vast area of northern Botswana, making this Botswana’s first aerial survey conducted with such a high sampling intensity. This is important, because the higher the sampling coverage, the more precise the population estimates. (Learn more about aerial surveys.)

An aerial view of zebras in Makgadikgadi.

Wildlife species we counted included large and small herbivores; predators were also noted when seen. Other observations included types of elephant herds (bull or family groups), elephant carcasses, elephant bones, and, if possible, whether tusks were intact or missing. We also recorded observations of selected large birds and nesting sites. Due to the growing concern on what possible impacts elephants are having on large trees in Botswana, and considering baobabs are an iconic tree in the country, we also counted baobab trees and took note of their size and possible damage they may have sustained. We made additional notes on environmental conditions, such as the extent of bush fires and the structural integrity of Botswana’s veterinary fence lines and whether livestock or wildlife had crossed them.

The information on elephant and wildlife numbers, distribution, movements, and demographic characteristics from this study will be incorporated into population models to better understand a variety of research and management questions relating to wildlife ecology and conservation management in Botswana.

This map shows the transects flown for EWB's survey. Click on all images to view in larger format.

We plan to publicize the results of this important aerial survey at an official launch of the report in early January. In addition, we plan to give several presentations on the project results to key stakeholders. The primary objectives of these presentations and meetings will be to share information obtained from this study and from the on-going research activities of EWB, identify priority areas for wildlife corridors, and develop strategies for promoting wildlife conservation in the region. We hope that the results of this collaborative survey with the Department of Wildlife & National Parks will have fundamental conservation management implications for land-use planning and conservation efforts in Botswana.

Kelly Landen is the director/program manager for Elephants Without Borders.

Watch the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s African elephant herd daily on Elephant Cam.


Elephant Encounters of the Cute Kind

Our newest elephant greets the world.

I expected Monday, December 27, to be a relatively slow day, a day to catch up on some work items. But all that changed quickly when a note was passed to me saying “Call the Park. A baby elephant was born.” I hopped in a van with our videographer, Shea Johnson, and off we went to see the calf, a boy and the fourth African elephant born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park this year.

When we arrived at the elephant exhibit, there was already a crowd of people surrounding the upper yard were Mom Litsemba, baby, and older brother Impunga were. The baby’s ears were flapping, his trunk was moving up and down and all around, and Mom was always right there with him. His feet weren’t moving in perfect harmony yet, but he was pretty stable. I was impressed, seeing as he was walking just hours after birth.

Mother Litsemba keeps Baby close.

Baby elephants, in my experience, are well-proportioned creatures. Unlike puppies or kittens, they don’t seem to have the tell-tale signs of overly large feet or ears that give you a clue as to how big they’re going to become. They’re just a true miniature version of their parents. This baby managed the slope of the yard just fine. He even found a small, shallow puddle to check out, but when Mom saw that, she quickly moved him away from the water with her trunk and began sucking up and blowing out the water in what seemed like an attempt at drying the puddle.

As we stood there taking video and photos, the baby started to fall asleep standing up. Then, the drowsy boy started to slump down—front legs first, then his back end—and he eventually just flopped on his side and continued to rest. But he wasn’t down for long—a couple of minutes—before all the motion from his mother and brother had him back up and following their lead.

Time for a rest! (Click on images to view in larger format.)

Keepers are tracking the times and duration of his nursing; he doesn’t nurse for very long—usually less than a minute—but nurses frequently. You can tell when he’s nursing when one of his front legs leaves the ground. They nurse on three legs; I’m not sure why, but I do know that it is darn cute.

The baby stumbled a bit, but other than going down for a quick nap, he was up and around for the hour I was visiting. He won’t have a name for a while, so keepers will just call him “Baby” or “Semba’s baby.” This is the fourth elephant baby we’ve had born this year, a record for us. The other calves born in 2010 are Lutsandvo, on February 14, Macembe, April 12, and Emanti, May 12. There are now a total of 17 African elephants at the Park: 8 adults and 9 calves.

You can expect to see Baby out with the herd in the main yard, unless there is rain, when he and his mother will be in the upper yard with quick access to the warm, dry barn. They will also be in the upper yard at night for observations for the next five weeks.

Jenny Mehlow is a public relations representative for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas and Their Toys.

Watch the Park’s elephants daily on Elephant Cam.


Winter Camp 2010

Papagayo demonstrates her nut-cracking ability.

Despite the downpour of rain on San Diego this week, Winter Camp at the San Diego Zoo is off to a GREAT start! Campers can come to the Zoo for one day or more, and each day brings something exciting and new. Camp is open to kids in grades K–5. This year’s theme—The Winter Express—takes us to stops throughout the Zoo.

My name is Kim, and I am the teacher for the kindergarten class this year. We have had quite a good time so far. On Monday we learned all about how animals eat. We met a scarlet macaw named Papagayo that uses her strong beak to crack open nuts and rip apart fruits and played games with Roberta, a digital puppet that looks like a cartoon but can see you, talk to you, and answer your questions, too. We made a snowman snaft (snack-craft) using powdered donuts, a licorice scarf, and chocolate chip eyes before visiting the reindeer that live at Polar Bear Plunge. Keeper Tammy even coaxed Boris, the baby reindeer, out into the open for us to see.

On Tuesday, we boarded our own private bus to the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. On the way, campers spotted the locomotion of creatures all over the Zoo: we saw swinging, jumping, running, huddling, stretching, flying, catching, and snuggling. Our destination was the Elephant Care Center, where zookeeper Nora talked to us about Tembo, the African elephant. We got to see Tembo do a training session; boy, is she BIG! In the afternoon we met an armadillo named Cocoa, a snake, and a hedgehog named Thula. We also made a sock snake to take home using a sock, recycled paper, googly eyes, and a red paper tongue.

Wednesday was “Expert Eyes.” We took another bus (our taxi in the rain) to see Jama, the north Chinese leopard. Zookeeper Karen talked to us about his eyesight and all of his other amazing adaptations. We got to see him munch on his meat. We then met a screech owl named Ohos, saw a Dr. Zoolittle magic show, and took a stroll through Discovery Outpost. Our favorite sights were the otter cave and the naked mole-rat exhibit. Campers went home with a lot of goodies today: a reindeer game, 101 Things to Do at the San Diego Zoo booklet, and a homemade frame with a camp picture from our trip to the big cats.

Today’s theme is “Hanging Around.” We are heading to the koala exhibit to go behind the scenes. I bet we’ll meet a koala up close! I can’t wait.

Come join in on the fun! There are still spots available for next week’s Winter Camp.

Kimberly Carroll is an educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Behind the Scenes with Birds.


Elephant Calves Measure Up

Umngani and her daugher, Khosi

Umngani and her daugher, Khosi

A common activity with young children is to make handprints with finger paint for proud parents to display on their refrigerators. These are often kept for years to reminisce about the growth of their children. We decided that this would be a useful exercise to do with our African elephant calves at the Wild Animal Park. While we didn’t hang these prints on the refrigerator, we did use the print measurements to compare their growth with the growth of wild African elephant calves.

In the wild, the age of young elephants (less than 15 years old) can be determined by the size of the footprint they leave behind in the dirt. The front-to-back length of the footprint (the print is shaped like a tear drop) is related to height, and both footprint length and height are related to age. It has been very useful to researchers to be able to determine age of calves in the wild in this way because it does not require any unnatural disturbance. Researchers can simply watch where a calf leaves a footprint, and when the animals have moved on, measure the print left behind in the dirt.

We wanted to compare the footprints of our calves with elephant footprints found in the wild, so we could see how growth in zoos compares with wild growth. All of our elephants are trained to walk onto a scale once a week and stand still while weights are recorded. We wet the scale before each calf entered and we then called them to walk across dry concrete with wet feet, leaving clear footprints behind after their weigh in. We were able to measure these after each calf was released back into the yard for afternoon play.

As it turns out, our calves are growing at the same rate as calves in the wild. For example, two-year-old calves in the wild have footprints that fall between 8.5 and 9.3 inches (21.8 and 23.7 centimeters). Our two-year-old calves, Impunga and Kamile, had footprints that were 9.4 and 9 inches (24 and 23 centimeters), thus falling within or close to the expected range. Both Musi and Khosi followed this same pattern. Our calves are growing very steadily; in November, Kamile weighed 1,030 pounds (467 kilograms), Punga 1,338 pounds (607 kilograms), Khosi 1,561 pounds (708 kilograms), and Musi a whopping 3,384 pounds (1535 kilograms)! Although our young males are getting bigger, they will remain with their family at the Wild Animal Park for the coming years. Because animals can’t be weighed in the wild, we will be comparing the growth in weight with the footprint size as they get older. However, so far it looks like our calves are growing bigger and heavier by the day!

The new elephant exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, Elephant Odyssey, is still on schedule to open in early summer of this year. None of the African elephants at the Wild Animal Park will be relocating, but the Park’s Asian elephants will find a new, large and comfortable home in Elephant Odyssey.

Emily Rothwell is a Heller Fellow Research Associate with the San Diego Zoo’s Behavioral Biology Division. Read her previous elephant blog, Sound the Alarm!