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Elephant Science

The Zoo’s rich history of caring for and studying Asian elephants spans more than a century. Home to the National Elephant Herpesvirus Lab and the Endocrine Research Lab, we are leaders in a collaborative national study to understand and improve elephant welfare in zoos and are part of a cognitive research program to prove just how smart elephants are. With multiple projects in elephant-range countries, we have been at the forefront of studying and helping to conserve this species in the wild for more than 50 years.

With the world’s largest concentration of zoo-based scientists, the National Zoo creates the knowledge and strategies to save species. The Zoo’s research has increased our knowledge of elephants and their environments , which has led to protection of habitats and better care for captive elephants in range countries.

The three pillars of our conservation and science program are:

  • Advancing conservation of wild Asian elephants through scientific excellence
  • Improving care and management of elephants via zoo-based research
  • Training and mentoring the next generation of elephant experts.

Why Elephants?

Elephants may be huge in size, but that’s not the only reason they are also a big priority at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which is a leader in elephant conservation and science. These majestic animals are an important part of the ecosystems in the wild and African elephants are a threatened species, while Asian elephants are endangered.

That’s why the National Zoo has a dedicated team of scientists working to understand the biology, reproductive physiology and genetics of these majestic animals, using the three elephants at the National Zoo—Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula—but also animals at other zoos and elephants in the field in their native homes.

What the Zoo’s researchers learn is applied to conservation efforts in elephant-range countries and to the captive management of elephants in zoos, which inspires the public to care about the future of these giants.

Elephant Trails

Fun Facts

Elephant Trails is an extensive conservation program built on decades of Zoo science, which will help us understand human-elephant conflict, stabilize existing habitats and populations, and improve conditions for captive populations in Asia.

The Zoo understands that saving Asian elephants cannot be accomplished by a single organization. The great undertaking requires strong and effective partnerships among key players. Because of its existing relations with U.S. and foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, and major academic and zoological institutions in elephant range countries, the Zoo is uniquely positioned to spearhead efforts that improve life for Asian elephants in zoos and save them in the wild.

National Zoo Elephant Research Programs

Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV)

EEHV is the greatest threat to the Asian elephant today with a fatality rate of 80 percent. First identified by the National Zoo, scientists have identified more than 60 cases of EEHV in the global captive elephant population since it was first documented. But EEHV not only affects captive Asian elephants—it has been the cause of death of more than 20 orphan and wild elephant calves within Asia. The National Zoo has conducted ground-breaking research on EEHV and our Herpes-virus Laboratory is the primary worldwide resource of information, testing and research for the elephant community. Read more about EEHV.

Reproduction and Health

The Endocrine Research Lab is the only facility in the United States providing extensive monitoring services for tracking the reproductive health of zoo elephants. Janine Brown and her staff work with dozens of zoos to conduct hormone evaluations to assess the reproductive status of hundreds of female elephants. Read more about elephant health and reproduction.

Behavioral research

Although scientists are very familiar with the interaction and communication of African elephants, they know almost nothing about Asian elephant sociality. Elephant Trails will provide scientists with unparalleled opportunities to study elephant behavior, including female interactions, cow/calf relationships, bull behavior, cognition, mate choice, and more. Read more about elephant behavioral research.

Geographic Information System (GIS)

While much research attention has been focused on African elephants, very little is known about their Asian cousins. Being forest dwellers, Asian elephants are extremely difficult to study. Asian elephant habitat has declined by 70 percent during the past 30 years, and presently fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. Scientists at the National Zoo’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab use satellite imagery and ground studies to track and study Asian elephants and their habitat. Read more about GIS.

Mitigating human-Elephant Conflict

People and elephants have co-existed in Asia for thousands of years. However, dramatic changes in how people interact with land and elephants have caused a significant increase in people-elephant conflicts. To help solve this problem, we are: Working with Asian leaders to implement land-use strategies that will reduce conflict between wild elephants and farmers; and developing tools for managing and protecting Asian elephants in areas that are threatened by agricultural conversion. Read more about mitigating human-elephant conflict.

Elephant Genetics

Scientists know little about the size and structure of wild elephant populations and the genes that are necessary for survival. Combining non-invasive genetic techniques with satellite tracking and other methods, we are working with our local partners to conduct vital research about Asian elephant population biology and genetics. Read more about elephant genetics.

Training the next generation

Training and mentoring future scientists and conservationists is one of the National Zoo’s greatest strengths. Species are not saved by individuals, but by groups of scientists, managers and the general public.

Training future leaders in science and conservation is one of our most effective conservation tools. The National Zoo has training and mentorship programs that provide support for aspiring elephant experts from the U.S. and Asia, including pre- and post-graduate fellowships; elephant veterinary training workshops; and Asian elephant professional internships in Zoo research departments.