Getting to Know Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh

They’re spunky, opinionated and enjoy splashing in a cool pool on a hot summer day. Who are these playful pachyderms? Our Asian elephants, Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh! Get to know their personalities and quirks from Elephant Trails keepers Rebecca Riley and Ashley Fortner.

Asian elephants Nhi Linh and Trong Nhi.
Asian elephants Nhi Linh (left) and her mother, Trong Nhi, arrived at the Zoo in November 2022 from Rotterdam Zoo. Both have a breeding recommendation with Spike, the Zoo's bull elephant. 

What are Trong Nhi and Nhi Ling’s personalities like?

Fortner: Nhi Linh is spunky! She is excitable and very sure of herself. When she likes something—or doesn’t like something—she isn’t shy about letting us know! Between the two, Nhi Linh tends to be braver and is usually the first to try new things. She’s inquisitive and shows a lot of interest in her surroundings. Nhi Linh has proven to be very resilient—she’s got a very “go with the flow” kind of attitude that’s super fun.

Riley: Trong Nhi is incredibly intelligent. She picks up on our routines and patterns quickly. When I work with her, I can see how she’s taking everything in and making decisions as she goes. She analyzes and thinks things through before she commits to them. She is very decisive, determined and willful. She can be very opinionated and stubborn, which I identify with! 

Fortner: Nhi Linh will run into a new situation without even thinking about it. Trong Nhi, on the other hand, will hang back. But, she is also a safe haven for Nhi Linh. If something spooks Nhi Linh, she immediately looks to mom for comfort.

Riley: In that way, they balance each other very well.

VIDEO | Jan. 23, 2023. Asian elephants Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh make a splash in the Elephant Community Center's indoor pool!

What has been your favorite moment with them?

Fortner: Experiencing all of their “firsts” has been really special. One of my favorite moments was Nhi Linh’s first time in the pool. She had been this close to going in for a few days, splashing the water with her trunk. Once she got in, you could see the pure joy on her face. It was awesome!

Riley: Mine is not a moment, but a timeline. Seeing Trong Nhi’s personality come out and earning her trust—I’ve always loved that aspect of getting to know new elephants. She has so many subtle expressions on her face, especially when she’s not into something. I can almost picture her raising an eyebrow! Other ‘tells’ are more obvious. When she doesn’t want us to shut the door, for example, she will purposefully put her butt or one foot in the door so we can’t close it. It cracks me up every time!

Asian elephants Nhi Linh (left) and Trong Nhi celebrate Nhi Linh's 10th birthday. Keepers decorated Nhi Linh's favorite toy: a buoy!
Asian elephants Nhi Linh (left) and Trong Nhi celebrate Nhi Linh's 10th birthday. Keepers decorated Nhi Linh's favorite toy, a buoy, with colorful non-toxic, water-based paint.  

What has surprised you about working with them?

Fortner: They’re very close-knit and rely on each other for support. The other day, we gave them access to habitats three (near the Elephant Barn) and four (near the Elephant Outpost). Nhi Linh has decided that she does not like habitat four, but Trong Nhi loves it. Mom was near the outpost by herself, and Nhi Linh vocalized to try to get her mom to come back to the barn. But, Trong Nhi was set on having her “me” time. It’s nice to see them branching out—that is the farthest distance we’ve ever seen them apart.

Riley: All of the elephants talk to each other, and they all have different vocalizations—trumpeting, rumbling and things like that. But Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh ‘bark’ and ‘chirp’ at one another—a first for our elephants! To me, it sounds a little like a turkey call.

VIDEO | Jan. 16, 2023. Nhi Linh is having a ball (err . . . a weeble-wobble)! Our Asian elephant got a kick out of her enrichment toy as she and her mother, Trong Nhi, played in the Elephant Community Center. The Elephant Cam captured all the ele-FUN!

Do they have a favorite enrichment item?

Fortner: Nhi Linh’s favorite enrichment item is a giant buoy. She loves to kick it around, push it in the pool and steal it from her mom.

Riley: Trong Nhi plays keep away with it!

Fortner:  Yes! Trong Nhi will put it between her legs so that Nhi Linh can’t go around and get it. Watching them play together is hilarious!

What challenges have you had to work through?

Riley: Ever since they arrived, our biggest goal has been to build our relationships with Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh. We want to ensure every interaction we have with them is positive, because that helps build a foundation of trust. Over the last few months, we’ve established a routine and structure for them so that they are comfortable and confident whenever we work with them.

Just being present—being a part of their day and learning alongside them—goes a long way toward building those relationships.

Fortner: We knew about Trong Nhi’s protectiveness before they came here. And we have seen that evident in the time she and Nhi Linh have been with Spike. So, we are working on separation training. That is not only to take the stress off of her, but also for Nhi Linh to have the chance to form those relationships on her own.

Riley: Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh have always been together. It’s important for them to spend some time apart every day, especially during feeding times and individual training sessions. Having them in separate enclosures means we don’t have to worry about more dominant individuals taking food, distractions from a next-door neighbor or social pressures. Eventually, we will be able to give them one-on-one time with other elephants, including Spike, which will help build those relationships.  

Asian elephant Nhi Linh stomps on her birthday cake made of fruits, vegetables and frozen water.
Nhi Linh stomps on her birthday cake.

What do you hope visitors take away from meeting them?

Riley: These new elephants have a lot of energy and charisma. They’re exactly what visitors look for when they visit the Zoo. I hope they fall in love with these girls and walk away wanting to support elephant conservation programs in the wild. That’s what Trong Nhi, Nhi Linh and all of our elephant ambassadors are here for!  

Fortner: Nhi Linh provides a unique window for kids. Especially when she plays with toys, we see our younger visitors light up in a way that we don’t always see with our older elephants.

Riley: She’s a kid—just like them. Many visitors have told us they were here decades ago when our former elephants, Ambika and Shanthi, were young, or when Kandula was born. People remember the elephant that was their age when they came here. Those connections capture you at a certain time and place, and they’re very meaningful.

Fortner: Our herd brings something special to every person.

Asian elephants Trong Nhi (background) and Nhi Linh (foreground) explore outdoor habitat 1 at the Elephant Trails exhibit.
Nhi Linh (foreground) and Trong Nhi forage in habitat 1 at the Elephant Trails complex on a sunny summer day. 

What can I do to help elephants in the wild?

Fortner: Tell somebody how excited you are about elephants, and get them to be excited, too! One person tells another, and that’s how you inspire the next generation to save elephants.

Riley: Reduce, reuse, recycle! Every little bit makes a big difference, both for the wild animals and habitats in our own country, as well as those abroad.

Also, be aware of how ingredients in the products you buy affect animal habitats the world over. Deforestation—particularly due to unsustainable palm oil farming practices—is one of the main reasons Asian elephants are critically endangered. In protecting land for elephants, you also protect thousands of other species that share their habitat, including tigers, orangutans and pangolins. When you shop, look for products made with sustainable palm oil—they’re elephant-friendly!

This story appears in the September 2023 issue of National Zoo News.