Asian elephant

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival scientists are studying what management factors are the most important for ensuring optimal health, reproduction and welfare of elephants, particularly ex situ. Activities are focused on both the African and Asian species of elephants in U.S. zoos, as well as managed populations in Southeast Asia.

Wild elephant populations are under siege. A major threat is the loss and fragmentation of habitat due to human expansion and agricultural land conversion, which leads to human-elephant conflict. Poaching for ivory is also a serious threat for both species, although more for African than Asian elephants. More than 60 percent of forest elephants in Africa have been killed for the ivory trade in the last decade.

Breeding elephants in human care is increasingly viewed as a means of maintaining important populations as “insurance” against environmental or anthropomorphic catastrophe. Globally, there are about 1,000 African elephants in human care, mostly in zoos, and upwards of 16,000 Asian elephants in zoos, circuses, sanctuaries, logging and tourist camps. Unfortunately, most captive elephant populations are not self-sustaining due to high mortality and low birth rates, and supplementation by wild capture and/or importation is widespread.

Current Projects

  • Reproductive endocrinology
  • Reproductive surveys of elephants in U.S. zoos and Thailand
  • Identifying management factors important for good welfare
  • Assisted reproduction and genome resource banking
  • Neuroendocrine regulation of prolactin and its effect on ovarian cyclicity
  • Physiological markers of health and inflammation
  • Social needs of managed elephants
  • ​Musth control
  • Genetic correlations with reproduction and health
  • Relationships between body condition, metabolic function, health and reproduction

Continue Exploring

Changing Landscapes Initiative

Smithsonian scientists work alongside community members in Northwestern Virginia to evaluate the impacts of land-use change on wildlife, ecosystem services and community health.

Coral Biobank Alliance

Smithsonian scientists are part of the Coral Biobank Alliance, a global network of coral experts preserving corals for restoration and research.

Coral Species Cryopreserved with Global Collaborators​

View a list of the coral species that have been cryopreserved using a technique developed by Smithsonian scientists.

Wildebeest Conservation

Conservation Ecology Center scientists are tracking the movements of white-bearded wildebeest to understand how changes across the landscape impact the species.

Protecting Piping Plovers in the Great Lakes

In 2022, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center will begin a new research project to help protect endangered piping plovers from predation by merlins.

Swift Fox Recovery

Smithsonian scientists, in collaboration with the Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife Department, are embarking on a five-year swift fox reintroduction project to restore swift foxes to tribal lands and to help reestablish connectivity between disjointed swift fox populations.

Conserving the World’s Largest Working Wetland

Conservation Ecology Center researchers are collaborating with institutions in Brazil and other Smithsonian colleagues to support sustainable cattle ranching in the Pantanal wetland.