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Caring for Asian Elephants: Stories from a Real-life Zoo Guardian

Raise your trunks for the world’s largest land mammal: the elephant! Find out how animal keeper, Rebecca Riley, cares for Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Asian elephant herd.

Female Asian elephant, Swarna stands on the left side of the photo behind a wired fence. Swarna is facing the right side, where keeper Rebecca stands looking at her. Rebecca's right hand is gently resting on Swarna's trunk through the fence.

While attending a conference with other animal care professionals, Asian elephant keeper Rebecca Riley realized how important keepers’ roles are in sharing stories about the animals in their care, like Swarna here. (This photo was taken prior to spring 2020; since then, animal care staff have been required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times while working.)

Most people can only get up-close to elephants at a zoo. Visitors learn the elephants’ names, personalities and stories. As I got to know each of Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s elephants, my passion for the species grew. However, the biggest spark for me occurred while I was attending a conference with other animal care professionals. Here, I realized we are the animals’ voice.

Zoo elephants are ambassadors for their species, but it’s the keepers’ work, storytelling and knowledge that allow people to understand and care about elephants. We help visitors foster a deeper connection to these amazing creatures. Their love for the animals they meet here will hopefully spark a desire to help protect their wild counterparts. 

40-year-old male Asian elephant, Spike, walks around his yard. There is a wired fence behind him.

Both female and male African elephants have tusks. Only some male Asian elephants — like Spike — develop them, female Asian elephants do not develop visible tusks at all!

There are three surviving species of elephants today: African forest, African savanna and Asian. Both species of African elephant tend to be larger, and their backs are flatter. Asian elephants have a high crested spine, giving them a rounder and shorter body.

While all elephants use their trunks similarly, African elephants have two fingers at the tip. Asian elephants only have one. There is also a difference in tusk development. Only some male Asian elephants develop visible tusks, while both male and female African elephants develop them.

Asian elephants Maharani (foreground) and her mother Kamala (background) explore the Elephant Trails habitat.

Asian elephants' natural habitat includes hilly terrain, and they typically live near water. The Zoo’s elephant habitat mimics these features with sloping landscapes and pools.

Asian elephants currently live in 13 Asian countries; their natural habitat includes hilly terrain, mountain ranges and valleys. Historically, their range was much broader, but threats from habitat loss and poaching have impacted populations significantly. By studying the way that elephants interact with each other and with their environment, zoos — including the Smithsonian’s National Zoo — are helping conservation scientists better understand these animals and mitigate the threats to their survival.

Elephants are very intelligent, so providing them with enrichment that exercises their minds as well as their bodies is an important part of caring for them. To mimic their natural forest environment, for example, we use giant logs to give the elephants something to scratch, rub or push around like they would a tree. Recycled firehose, too, can simulate vines. Large items — like tires and giant wobble toys — give our 40-year-old male, Spike, something to demonstrate his strength while he is in musth.

Female Asian elephant, Bozie, stands over a vine-like structure made of firehose. There are sturdy metal poles on either side of her, and behind the right pole is a care tire hanging from a rope. Bozie is outside, in one of the yards.

Keepers provide the Asian elephants with items to scratch, rub and push around like they would a tree. Here, female Bozie scratches herself on a vine-like structure made from fire hose. 

Scent enrichment can greatly affect the way our elephants interact with their environment. Some scents, like another elephant’s urine, might encourage an elephant to explore and area more. Others might have the opposite effect. When we presented our elephants with some charred wood, they did not seem to like it. It makes sense they would have a negative reaction to something that, in the wild, would signify danger in their environment.

As herbivores, Asian elephants eat plant-based foods that are high in fiber. The bulk of their diet is comprised of hay, but they also receive bamboo and browse (leafy branches). To encourage our elephants to forage and explore, we have positioned feeders at different locations around their habitat, and they sporadically drop hay throughout the day.

Interacting with keepers is another form of enrichment. We use operant conditioning to train our elephants, which means the elephants have the choice to voluntarily participate in training or choose to spend their time doing other things. If they choose to participate, they receive positive reinforcement in the form of a favorite food or verbal praise — which also helps build their confidence and trust in us. When we train a new behavior, they receive “jackpot” rewards, like watermelon and cantaloupe.

Female Asian elephant, Swarna, walks through a snow covered ground. The yard's fence and gate to another yard are behind her. The snow is just deep enough to cover her feet and there is a dusting of snow on her trunk.

Asian elephants are tolerant of cold weather, and some of the Zoo’s female elephants, like Swarna, seem to even enjoy it!

It can be challenging to care for elephants due to their size and strength, but our facility is designed to keep both the animals and our team safe. Having a good relationship with the elephants — knowing their personalities, likes and dislikes — can help our team provide the best care for each individual elephant.

Of all the elephants, I have the closest relationship with Swarna. Securing her trust is vital for both her day-to-day care and for veterinary exams. When she arrived at the Zoo in May 2014, our veterinary team noted that her teeth showed unusual pattern and wear. They wondered if we could train Swarna to voluntarily participate in radiographs.

My fellow keeper Becca Spickler and I worked with Swarna to get her accustomed to the procedure. When it came time for us to take the actual radiograph, she was a pro! As her primary trainers, Becca and I took a lot of pride in Swarna’s accomplishment.

Keeper Rebecca Riley (left) and Becca Spickler (right) stand in front of female Asian Elephant Swarna (behind, center). The keepers are holding their hands up in a heart shape.

Both Rebecca (left) and fellow keeper Becca Spickler (right) have worked on building a relationship with Swarna ever since she arrived in 2014. (This photo was taken prior to spring 2020; since then, animal care staff have been required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times while working.)

Becoming an elephant keeper takes perseverance; it can be tough to get your foot in the door. Our job is physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding, but caring for animals is my passion, and I wouldn’t want any other career. At the end of the day, this job is all about building relationships with the elephants, caring for them and contributing to their conservation. That’s what makes being a keeper worth it.

Trumpet for elephants all month long! The Zoo’s mobile game, Zoo Guardians, is highlighting African elephants as their October animal of the month. Migrate over to Google Play or the App Store to check them out! Zoo Guardians is free* to download.

Eager to meet the Zoo’s elephant herd? Plan your visit today!

*In-app purchases are available.