Elephant Trails is more than an exhibit; it is also an extensive conservation program built on decades of science. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s rich history of caring for and studying Asian elephants spans more than a century. Scientists at the Zoo and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are working to create a comprehensive view of Asian elephant biology, behavior, reproduction, genetics, migration, elephant endotheliotropic virus (EEHV), and the challenges surrounding human-elephant conflict. Elephant Trails—where visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the multi-generational herd—is the cornerstone of the campaign to save this endangered species from extinction. Online visitors can catch a glimpse of the Smithsonian's National Zoo's elephants on the Elephant Cam.
While six female elephants live on Elephant Trails currently, the exhibit is large enough to house between eight and ten adult elephants and their young. Although the elephants don't need to travel at the Zoo, Elephant Trails give them ample space to move around. Within the Elephant Community Center and the surrounding outdoor yards, the elephants have their choice of four pools for bathing, swimming and playing in the warmer months. Unique to the Zoo, the Elephant Trek provides outdoor exercise experiences for the Zoo’s elephants. Visible from the Homer and Martha Gudelski Elephant Outpost, the quarter-mile path winds its way through the woods between Elephant Trails and the Bird House, simulating the elevated terrain of their natural habitats.
Elephants are very intelligent, so the Smithsonian’s National Zoo provides them with enrichment activities to ensure they stay sharp. Often, keepers will entice the elephants to investigate objects by hiding some of their favorite foods inside. Specially designed nooks and puzzle feeders challenge the elephants to think and problem solve to retrieve the treats inside.
Caring for Elephants
The pachyderms are provided with everything they need to survive and thrive, including first-class medical care, dedicated nutrition plans, training sessions, exercise and enrichment. The elephant team interacts with the animals through a protective barrier, a standard practice for zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The bulk of the elephant space is covered in natural substrates (grass, dirt, and sand outdoors, sand stalls inside), although a number of indoor enclosures have a rubber coating on the floor. Rubber floors provide good cushioning and a cleanable surface during the elephants' baths. There are also a few areas that have broom-finished concrete or pavement. The combination of hard and soft surfaces allows the Zoo’s elephants to choose areas most comfortable to them.
The Elephant Barn which is next to the Elephant Community Center, contains five ‘suite’ enclosures that can accommodate individual and multiple elephants. Browse (vegetation, such as shoots and leaves, that is suitable for animals to eat) is stored in a climate-controlled space where misters keep it fresh until it is given to the animals. An on-site kitchen enable keepers to store fruits, vegetables and leaf-eater biscuits among other foods. The Barn is not open to visitors.