A Trunk Full of Memories
As Ambika turns 60, we celebrate our Asian elephants and what they've taught us over the years
by Cindy Han
It was 1961 when a large gift arrived here at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo—an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), given to the children of the United States from the children of India. The young female, Ambika, was a relatively dainty adolescent back then. She had spent her early years in India’s Coorg Forest, then was captured and put to work at a logging camp. Elephants have traditionally been used in India to help with the heavy lifting of felled trees.
Young Ambika at the National Zoo in 1967. (NZP Archives)
But things changed for Ambika. Since coming to the National Zoo almost 50 years ago, she has received daily care, from baths to nutritious meals to exercise. She has learned to relate to the other elephants in the herd, going from the youngster in the bunch to the responsible elder that she is today. She has helped advance the knowledge that scientists have about elephant behavior and physiology, particularly now that she is one of the oldest elephants in North America.
During her time here, Ambika has been growing, learning, adapting, and aging well under the care of the Zoo’s staff. The fact that she has reached this milestone is a testament to our commitment to the care of Asian elephants. From the keepers who work with her daily to the plumbers who service the Elephant House to the nutritionists who select her diet—it takes an entire zoo to raise an elephant. And in return, we’re rewarded with countless priceless moments that remind us of how special these animals are.
Ambika—with her distinctive pink trunk, her social nature, her particular habits, and her signature smile—is truly a gift.
One way to identify Ambika is by her omnipresent "chew." She loves to tuck a little tuft of hay or a stick in the corner of her mouth and just keep it there. She'll drop it if she finds something better, but she does not like it if anyone tries to take her chew away.
Ambika is known for seeking out social interaction, both with people and other elephants—and she can act sulky if she doesn’t succeed at getting attention. Thanks to her tendency to sneak quietly up to people, Ambika has earned a couple of nicknames from her keepers: “Sneaky Biki” and “Space Invader.” As keeper Debbie Flinkman (shown with Ambika) describes, “You’ll be standing there and, before you know it, she’s inched closer and closer to you, and just starts to lean on you. And you never hear her coming!”
Elephants can move about more silently than you would expect for such large creatures, in part due to the way that their thick foot pads cushion their steps and absorb their weight.
A frothy morning scrub not only keeps the elephants clean and conditions their skin, it also conditions them to handling by humans. That way, when it comes time for a medical exam or procedure, the elephants are already accustomed to being touched. A dedicated team of keepers as well as FONZ volunteer aides help maintain a regular routine for the Zoo’s elephants. (Marie Galloway and Sean Royals shown here.)
The bathing beauty in this photo is Toni, who died in 2006. During Toni’s time here at the Zoo, Ambika’s role in the herd evolved to one of more leadership and responsibility for the others’ well being—typical behavior for the matriarch of a herd in the wild.
As the two adult elephants now at the Zoo, Ambika and Shanthi interact well and keep each other company. They’ve been through a lot together. Years ago, the Zoo held an annual post-Halloween “pumpkin stomp” for the elephants, where visitors could watch as truckloads of pumpkins would be brought in for the elephants to step on and eat. It was an enrichment activity that offered the animals physical and mental stimuli, and it was a nutritious treat to boot.
What visitors did not get to witness was the day-after reaction. Keeper Debbie Flinkman describes how the morning after one pumpkin stomp, Ambika took one look at the field of smashed pumpkins before her and went running and sliding through them, flinging them with her trunk, and trumpeting loudly. “She will raise her trunk and produce the most beautiful sound,” says Flinkman. “It sounds so glorious and joyful.”
A 9,000-pound elephant getting her nails done? Keeping an elephant’s feet in good condition and free of infection is actually an important part of elephant husbandry, which includes their daily care, feeding, exercise, training, and mental stimulation.
Here, keeper Marie Galloway, who has been with the National Zoo since 1987, helps trim the toenails of Shanthi, the Zoo’s largest Asian elephant. Shanthi came to the Zoo from Sri Lanka in 1976, and is the mother of Kandula, the Zoo’s young male elephant.
From the time Kandula was born in 2001, he has delighted Zoo visitors with his playful antics. For Ambika, who has never been a mother, adapting to this rambunctious new youngster has been a gradual process. She looks after him, but at the same time, she’ll stop him from pestering her too much. Sometimes, a good head butt is the only way to make your point.
An elephant’s trunk has an amazing 150,000 muscle units and tendons, which enable it to make very specific maneuvers. Ambika, a persnickety eater, puts her trunk muscles to work to arrange her food. She uses the tip of her trunk to separate her grains just so, while simultaneously pushing some hay with another part of her trunk.
Ambika is also a whiz at using her trunk to toss sand up and over her back so that it covers every inch of her body. Elephants do this instinctively to protect their skin from insects and the sun’s rays, but Ambika seems to get some fun out of it, too.
It’s been a full and varied life for Ambika here at the National Zoo, and we celebrate her 60th year with gratitude for all that she has shared with us.