african elephant


Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 2


Vus’musi travelled in a crate built with his comfort and welfare in mind.

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.” If you missed it before, you can still read Part 1, here.

There’s a lot of planning that goes into relocating a much beloved, 7,500-pound African elephant: paperwork, legal permits, contracts, travel routes, pit stops, escorts, pre-ship physicals, and the list goes on and on. From a training perspective, a successful move requires a lot of desensitization training, planning, and the ability to switch focus or adapt, along with precise timing. We put all these, and more, into getting Vus’Musi ready for his big adventure.

Originally, we thought we would move ‘Musi near the end of September, giving us plenty of time to desensitize him to the actual elephant crate and some of the approximations of placing heavy rear metal bars behind him to secure him inside. The move date was eventually set for an August evening, and ‘Musi was ready. For temperature concerns, an evening move made a lot of sense, as it was still summer. Our route also took heavy traffic out of the picture. For ‘Musi’s comfort, a swamp cooler was attached to one of the forward vents of the transport unit, just in case we felt he needed to be cooled off.

As we began to prepare, we had a quite a few things going for us; ‘Musi was one of our best trained elephants, we had experience with crate training elephants, and we had enough keepers with great relationships with him to pull it off. We decided that four of us (Mindy, Keith, Dion, and I) would be involved with the main training of the front leg tethers (Karissa also helped out on certain days). On the other hand, we also had some challenges. The timing of the move wasn’t very far removed from his last major tusk procedure, in which he was fully leg tethered and eventually darted on his rear end with an anesthetic tranquilizer (and yes—they do have great memory).  After having had many tusk procedures, ‘Musi is very wary of anyone behind him, especially if it’s someone he doesn’t know.

Training moved along rather smoothly—so much so, that we started to desensitize him to “activity” behind him while his front legs were tethered to the crate. Unfortunately, ‘Musi spooked himself when his tail brushed along the crate; he reacted like he had just been darted again (at least that’s what it looked like to the keepers). It was at that point that ‘Musi realized that he was actually secured to the crate. The ordeal was a major setback and we were two weeks out from the big day. We had to switch focus quickly and make every session count. Our revised plan was to make the leg tethers and anklets a fun and highly reinforced “put-on and take-off game.” In a nutshell, we put anklets on both ankles at the west main gate, then sent him into the west holding yards and then into the west barn where we removed the anklets. At first, we removed them anywhere in the barn, but eventually we did this inside the crate that was located outside of the last barn stall.

We knew we wanted to have both front legs tethered for the move and we knew that he would notice that he had a length of leg tether (with its weight and sound) attached to his first leg, when we needed to ask for his other leg to tether to the crate. So while we continued with the “game,” we approximated and simulated the sound and weight of a leg tether. First, we attached a small length of tether to his first anklet, and when we asked him to drop his first leg to the ground to give us his other leg, we would drop a heavy, unattached tether onto the ground right next to his foot to simulate the sound of an attached tether. We also knew that we couldn’t afford another setback, so all approximations were done with ‘Musi not tethered to the crate—that would only happen on the actual day of the move.

Meanwhile, my staff and I had several meetings to practice the rest of the procedures for securing him into the crate (while he was nowhere around, of course). We also went over all the different scenarios that could take place during the move, along with input from our accompanying veterinarian, as well as the owner of the moving vehicle. All this preparation set the stage for the big day.

To make a long story short, ‘Musi was about as perfect as we could expect—and so was the entire move! We left the Safari Park with ‘Musi at 7 p.m. Wednesday night and arrived at Fresno Chaffee Zoo at 4:20 a.m. Thursday morning—just over nine hours of total travel time. Mindy and I accompanied him for the trip, and  our familiar voices at the four pit stops we made probably reassured him that he wasn’t completely “alone” in this new adventure. I’m sure the watermelon, beet pulp, and choice browse that we gave him during those stops helped, too! Throughout the trip, ‘Musi was under constant, remote video surveillance by our vet, who was in a separate vehicle behind the truck. There were three chase vehicles in all, in addition to a CHP escort for half the trip up.

In a situation like this, experience is invaluable. Having the crate available ahead of time to approximate the behaviors needed is a must-have. Thanks again to Stephen Fritz and his crew for another successful move. His experience and expertise, along with his continuing innovation to improve the travel crates and their creature comforts, make for a pleasing experience throughout the process. Fritz helped us move our five Asian elephants to our Zoo in downtown San Diego, our five African elephants to Tucson, Msholo here from Orlando, Florida, and now Vus’musi to Fresno (and that’s just with the current herd here at the Safari Park!)

Jim Oosterhuis, San Diego Zoo Global veterinarian, has accompanied all of our elephant moves, and he’d be the first to tell you that he was happy that he didn’t have to do anything medically with ‘Musi because everything went smoothly! The keepers at the Safari Park did a fantastic job preparing for and then implementing the move safely and efficiently. Having the Fresno Chaffee Zoo staff waiting for his arrival and dealing with the unloading and cleaning of the crate so that Mindy and I could focus on ‘Musi, was something we both immensely appreciated in the wee morning hours of an all-nighter. But more about that—and how ‘Musi is doing—next time.

Curtis is the elephant supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Vus’musi’s Big Adventure, Part 1.


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.


San Diego Zoo Safari Park Loans African Elephant to Fresno Chaffee Zoo

SafariParkBlogA team of animal care staff from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park went on the road this week with a 7,500-pound (3,432-kilogram) traveling companion named Vus’Musi. The 11-year-old male elephant—who is affectionately called “Moose” or “Moosey” by his keepers—was moved to a new home at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo on Thursday, Aug. 20 as part of a breeding loan recommended by the Species Survival Plan program, managed within zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Vus’Musi’s keepers worked with him for weeks to prepare him for the move, so when the day came for him to leave the Safari Park, he walked into his moving crate easily. To ensure that Vus’Musi was safe and confortable, he was monitored throughout the entire drive by two of his Safari Park keepers and a veterinarian. During the trip, there were frequent stops to reward him with treats, including watermelon and cuttings from leafy tree branches.

Upon his arrival, Vus’Musi was placed in a holding area that allows him to see his two new herd members, females Amy and Betts. He won’t have physical access until he has completed his quarantine at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Two of Vus’Musi’s keepers from the Safari Park, Mindy Albright and Curtis Lehman, will stay with him in Fresno to assist in his transition to new keepers and surroundings.

“He’s all grown up,” said Curtis Lehman, animal care supervisor, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Being a male, we knew that someday he’d probably move to another place and start a family of his own—and it turned out to be the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.”

This fall, all three elephants will be living in the multi-species African Adventure habitat. Opening October 15, the area features savannas, pools, waterfalls and mud wallows. The other species included in the new African Adventure habitat include lions, cheetahs, rhinos and meerkats.

Vus’Musi was born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2004. He is the first calf born into a herd of elephants that was relocated from Swaziland to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2003, to prevent them from being culled in their homeland. His name, Vus’Musi, means “to build a family”—and now that he is in Fresno, animal care staff hope that he will become a father.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.


Tusk Tales

Shaba recently had her tusks trimmed after she broke one.

Shaba, who lives at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, recently had her tusks trimmed after she broke one.

We get a lot of questions about tusks here in the Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo. Since we have both African and Asian elephants in our exhibit we care for quite a few individuals with tusks—five of our seven elephants have them. Caring for elephant tusks is pretty straightforward, but every once in a while they require additional maintenance. Many of you may have noticed that some of the elephants’ tusks have changed in size and shape over the last few years. Here’s why, but first a little background information—a kind of Tusk 101.

What are tusks? They are modified incisor teeth that grow separately from the molars inside of an elephant’s mouth. Tusks differ by not having the protective enamel coating that covers chewing teeth. And if they grow at all, an elephant only gets one set of tusks. In African elephants, both males and females can grow tusks. Among Asian elephants, only the males have tusks that grow externally and beyond the sulcus cavity (the lip area where the tusk is visibly seen). Female Asian elephants can grow small tusks called ‘tushes’, but they are rarely ever visible unless the mouth is open. Because tusks are teeth, there is a living pulp or root that sits in a hollow cavity at the base of the tusk.

Tusks are used for stripping bark off trees, fighting and playing with one another, and even for digging for water during times of drought. Not all elephants use their tusks the same way and some elephants use one tusk more than the other. Depending on available nutrition and the amount of wear and tear put on them, tusks can grow several inches a year.

A trusting relationship with keepers—and a few treats—results in the ability to take radiographs of Shaba's tusks.

A trusting relationship with keepers—and a few treats—results in the ability to radiograph Shaba’s tusks.

Basic tusk care includes cleaning the surface regularly and flushing out the sulcus cavity with water. To monitor the overall integrity of the tusks, we train each of the elephants to allow for radiograph imaging. The elephants are asked to hold a steady position and allow an x-ray plate to sit between the tusk and trunk so our veterinary staff can gather an image. These pictures give us the idea of where the pulp cavity lies inside the tooth. This is very important information; if an elephant injures or breaks its tusk near or at the pulp, the tusk is compromised. We have treated quite a few tusks over the years for various reasons, and this usually includes trimming them.

There are a few options we can utilize when a tusk needs to be trimmed. In the same way we train the elephants for radiographs, we also train them to allow us to trim their tusks. We generally use strong, thin steel wire to saw through the tusk, a relatively simple and safe way to remove part of the tooth in a scenario where the elephants allow us to do so. A normal trim can take anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes. All the while, the elephant receives food rewards as part of our positive reinforcement training program.

Tusk trimming takes teamwork.

Tusk trimming takes teamwork.

Late last year Shaba, one of our resident female African elephants, broke about 18 inches off of her left tusk. We were unaware of how she broke it, but immediately radiographed the remaining portion and trimmed it without compromising the pulp cavity. Both of her tusks have been trimmed recently and are relatively short. This was the best option for Shaba to be able to keep her tusks—and they will continue to grow. In fact, several of our elephants have had successful tusk trims over the last few years. We use the removed tusk portions in educational programs at the Zoo.

If during your next visit you notice shortened tusks or tusks that are blunt at the end, you will now understand why. Trimming is all part of normal tusk care and is always done in the best interest of our elephants.

Robbie Clark is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous blog, Happy Birthday, Zoo Elephants!


A Tusk Task

Vus'Musi, seen here in 2012, had some tusk work done recently.

Vus’Musi, seen here in 2012, recently had some tusk work done.

Vus’Musi is our oldest calf and quite an active boy. He’s 11 years old and likes to spar with our older bull, Msholo, quite a bit. Elephants like to use their tusks to break up browse, dig up things, or displace other elephants by using them as offensive and defensive weapons. If an elephant’s tusk were to break off at the end, and not expose the pulp cavity, it basically keeps growing outward. Occasionally, a tusk breaks either too far back or breaks off near the sulcus, exposing the pulp inside, which allows bacteria to get in and possibly cause an infection.

Vus’Musi recently broke off his right tusk near the sulcus, leaving the red pulp inside exposed. It appeared that he may have snapped off his tusk while attempting to tusk at or move a large tree stump in one of our main yards, but we’re not really sure because nobody witnessed it and we noticed the break when we came in one morning. Fortunately, his keepers have a great relationship with him, so they were able to clean and temporarily cover the end of the broken tusk with Technovit®.

We scheduled Vus’Musi to have a partial pulpotomy and for a filling (a plug) to be put in the tusk to protect it as it heals and grows out. The date was set for February 11 and the elephant keepers worked very hard preparing Vus’Musi for the procedure using operant conditioning with positive reinforcement. On the day of the procedure, all of the hard work between Vus’Musi and his keepers paid off. The vet department, exotic animal dentist, elephant keepers and all of their support staff worked together to make sure that Musi’s procedure was a success.

If you observe Vus’musi on the elephant cam, you can barely see his remaining right tusk protruding just past his sulcus. It will continue to grow out and we’ll continue to take radiographs (think x-rays), to see if it’s healing properly from the inside, because amazingly enough, we’ve found that the tusk can still continue to grow despite infections still festering inside of them. If you’re wondering whether Vus’musi felt any pain either when he broke of his tusk or while there could be ongoing infection, the answer is believed to be no. The pulp cavity is a blood supply only and doesn’t contain nerve endings.

Anyway, he’s back to his mischievous behavior of pestering Umngani and sparring with Msholo, albeit hanging closer to his mom than usual. He’s still a bit of a momma’s boy, but younger brother Lutsandvo took over the title and has surpassed ‘Musi’s world record for nursing.

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Taking Care of Tusks. Curtis Lehman is the Park’s elephant supervisor.


14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014

This year, the Safari Park baby boom provided over 650 tiny new additions to our animal family, some of which were released into the wild. From cute chicks to courageous calves and cubs, here are some of the noteworthy births we saw in 2014:

1. Leroy, the resilient giraffe calf.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Leroy

The birth of our first Uganda giraffe calf on January 8 was a marvelous way to kick off the New Year. However, shortly after Shani’s calf arrived, keepers noticed the youngster was exhibiting signs of weakness and not eating well. At two weeks old, Leroy was sent to the Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center, where he spent 39 days in treatment for a severe bacterial infection. Nursing was impossible, so his human keepers filled in as surrogate parents, bottle-feeding the young calf three to five times a day. After extensive care, Leroy made a full recovery and was welcomed back into his herd with kisses and nose rubs in April.

2. Tanu’s spirited stripes.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Tanu

The endangered Grevy’s zebra population saw a tiny black-and-white boost when Bakavu gave birth to her fifth foal, Tanu, on January 3. Tanu was able to tell his mother apart from other zebras in the herd and knew to stay close to her by memorizing Bakavu’s unique stripe pattern.

3. Parvesh, the lord of celebration.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Parvesh

Parvesh, which means lord of celebration in Hindi, was born on February 25 to mother Alta and father Bophu. When he was nine weeks old, the greater one-horned rhino calf moved into the Asian Plains habitat and started making his own rules. Parvesh’s charming personality demands the attention of our guests.

4. One little gorilla named Joanne.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Joanne

When Imani had her first baby on March 12, the 18-year-old mother had to be sedated and whisked to the Harter Veterinary Medical Center for an emergency C-section. The fragile infant, named Joanne, stayed at the veterinary hospital for round-the-clock care. Due to the long labor, Joanne was having trouble breathing, and it turned out that she had a collapsed lung and pneumonia. Twelve days later, the baby was laid down in a nest of soft hay in the gorilla bedroom, and Imani was let in. The moment Joanne was reunited with her mother will forever live in our hearts. This gorilla’s story was (and still is) incredible.

5. Cheetah and puppy best friends.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Ruuxa and Raina

Ruuxa and Raina became an overnight sensation. The six-week-old cheetah cub and seven-week-old Rhodesian ridgeback were the youngest animal ambassador pairing since the program began. Shortly after their introduction, Ruuxa underwent surgery to repair a growth abnormality in his limbs. Raina, whose name means guardian, stayed by the cheetah cub’s side throughout the procedure and continues to be an attentive and loyal friend.

6. Jackson, the curious okapi calf.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Jackson

Gestation for okapis can last from 14 to 16 months, so the birth of Jackson in July was a highly anticipated event. The curious calf stayed close to his mother but kicked his way into our hearts as well.

7. A rare crane chick.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Wattled crane chick

Our very first wattled crane chick shuffled its way into our hearts this summer. Wattled cranes are the rarest crane species found in Africa, so this chick was (and still is) a treasure.

8. Our first Masai giraffe calves.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Gowon

We have a total of 134 Ugandan giraffes and 23 reticulated giraffes, but the births of Gowon and Kamau in July marked the first time Masai giraffes have been born at the Safari Park. While Masai giraffes are the most populous of the subspecies, all wild populations have decreased significantly since the late 1990s, due to habitat loss and competition with livestock for resources. Both are aptly named in the Masai language: Gowon (pronounced Go-wan) means maker of rain and Kamau (pronounced Kam-mao) means little warrior.

9. Four reasons to roar at Lion Camp.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: 4 African lion cubs

Four little rascals debuted at Lion Camp this fall and almost doubled the size of our pride. Cubs Ernest, Evelyn, Marion, and Miss Ellen were born on June 22 but spent several months bonding with their mother, Oshana, behind the scenes. The cubs now spend their days pouncing, climbing, and testing the patience of their big cat parents.

10. Our spotted cheetah sisters.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Cheetah sisters

Ayanna and Bahati received around-the-clock care at our Animal Care Center for the past few months. The cubs were born at the Safari Park’s Cheetah Breeding Center to Allie, but animal care staff decided to hand-rear the females because their mother has been unsuccessful with previous litters. Now, the female cubs have advanced in their training and have moved to different areas of the Park, awaiting their puppy companions.

11. Luke, a leucistic waterbuck calf.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Luke

Luke has been turning heads since his arrival in September. For decades, we’ve successfully bred over 20,000 rare and endangered animals, including 278 ellipsen waterbuck, but Luke is the first-ever animal born at the Park with a condition that causes him to have reduced pigmentation. He’s a stand-out guy and receives a lot of attention from guests taking a ride on the Africa Tram.

12. Petunia, the petite rhino.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Petunia

Our 67th greater one-horned rhino, named Petunia, debuted in the Asian Plains exhibit after one month of close care. The calf weighed only 128 pounds (58 kilograms) at birth, which is small for her species, so animal care staff kept a 24-hour watch on the newborn until she was ready to leave her protected yard in September. Petunia and her mother, Tanaya, have been blooming and exploring their 40-acre (16 hectares) home since.

13. Satellite elephant calf Nandi.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Nandi

Did you hear? Our satellite herd at the Reid Park Zoo in Tuscon, Arizona, got an adorable little boost with big ears this year. The African elephant calf named Nandi is doing well and enjoying time with her herd at the Click Family Elephant Care Center.

14. Four purr-fect cheetah cubs.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: 4 cheetah cubs

photo: Ershun Lee

Four adorable cheetah cubs were born to first-time mother Addison in July at our off-site breeding center. Wgasa, Reu, Pumzika, Mahala, and their mother moved into the Okvango Outpost (and our hearts) last month. It’s certainly wonderful to see so many spots and to watch a cheetah mother raising her cubs.


Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 10 Festive Reindeer Facts.


7 Animal Facts You Didn’t Learn In School

You don’t have to be an animal expert to appreciate the natural world. In fact, simple short cuts like the fun facts listed below, can be very conducive to gaining a better understanding of the Animal Kingdom. Enjoy!

Monkeys have tails and apes don't.

1. Monkeys have tails and apes don’t.
Since we have more in common with our great ape cousins than we do with monkeys, a good way to remember this fact is to simply look at your rear end.

There’s no such thing as a poisonous snake.

2. There’s no such thing as a poisonous snake.
Contrary to pop culture and older versions of Encyclopedia Britannica, snakes are venomous, not poisonous. If they were poisonous, touching or licking a serpent would be the more appropriate fear than death by snakebite. And that’s even debatable, since statistics show that out of 7,000 to 8,000 snakebites per year in the U.S., only 5 or 6 are fatal. Call it semantics, but the truth is only 10 percent of the 3,000 species of snake are venomous, meaning they inject toxins into their prey (biting or stinging). The difference is skin deep.


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.