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Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute Asian Elephant Program Overview

Asian elephants are rarer and more endangered than their larger African counterparts by a factor of 10, with an estimated global population of 30,000-50,000. Their habitats are spread across 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia. In all 13 countries, those habitats are rapidly being lost as humans convert forests to agriculture and cut down trees for timber.

As their habitat shrinks, elephants are forced to live closer and closer to large numbers of people, causing conflicts between people and elephants and further threatening the species’ survival. Without a continued commitment to conserving these gigantic herbivores, experts say the wild population could disappear in a matter of decades.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) is deeply invested in the conservation of Asian elephants. Educating and inspiring the public with Asian elephants at NZCBI in Washington, D.C. has always gone hand in hand with animal behavior research on the Zoo’s resident herd, cutting-edge scientific research and high-impact conservation in the wild.

NZCBI researchers have co-authored some 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers over the past 20 years. These same world-renowned researchers have also helped to establish new labs and train the next generation of experts at home and abroad across topics including elephant conservation, behavior, endocrinology, genomics, genetics, disease and ecology — ensuring that their knowledge and expertise is amplified and applied in the places it matters most.

Advancements in human care for elephants

Zoo Herd, Behavior and Welfare Experts

  1. Bryan Amaral, Acting Associate Director of Animal Care
  2. Tony Barthel, Curator of Asian Elephants

Asian Elephant Herd at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.

In 1889, NZCBI’s facility in Washington D.C. opened with two Asian elephants named “Dunk” and “Gold Dust.” There are now seven Asian elephants at the Zoo —one male elephant, or bull, and six females. The Elephant Trails exhibit is large enough to house between eight and 10 adults and their young. Animal care staff are actively involved in research on the Zoo’s Asian elephant herd. Advancements supporting the health and growth of zoo elephant populations include:

  • Research on the Zoo’s herd has benefited countless elephants under human care in North America and beyond. Over the past three years alone, the Zoo’s animal care team has conducted 42 research projects to better understand elephants’ needs in human care.
    • Findings include the importance of keeping elephants in multigenerational social groups that mimic wild herds, as well as the creation of habitats large enough to provide exercise and complex enough to be mentally stimulating.
    • NZCBI researchers were integral in developing artificial insemination techniques in 1994 and a way to track elephants’ unique hormone cycles to predict ovulation in 1996.
      • These advancements laid the groundwork for the current goal of establishing a self-sustaining population of elephants under human care in North America.
    • Aided in the development of the tracking collars that have become integral to the cutting-edge conservation work conducted by Smithsonian scientists on wild elephants.
    • Testing levels of stress hormones to gauge social fit within groups of elephants.
    • Use of automated food delivery systems spread throughout the Zoo’s Elephant Trails exhibit to encourage healthy levels of exercise and engagement.
    • Currently, the herd and its animal care team are developing something akin to an elephant personality test with potential applications for identifying the best candidates for rewilding in Asia.
      • These tests present elephants with puzzles, and the idea is that the most determined and creative elephants may be more likely to find ways to exploit resources in human spaces, making them less than ideal candidates for rewilding.
An Asian elephant wearing a GPS satellite collar in a forest in Myanmar

Conservation and Research in the Wild

Movement, Ecology and Conservation Experts

  1. Peter Leimgruber, Conservation Biologist and Head of the Conservation Ecology Center
  2. Melissa Songer, Conservation Biologist

Asian elephant populations continue to decline across their range. The greatest threat is habitat loss, but Asian elephants are also killed or displaced by growing human populations, poaching for ivory and elephant skin, and human-elephant conflict. When elephants and people come into conflict it is dangerous for people and for elephants. So-called “problem elephants” can ravage crops, destroy homes, and injure and even kill people. As a result, large numbers of elephants are pushed out of their habitat and often end up being shot or poisoned by people who believe their lives and livelihoods are threatened by elephants.

Published Research, Training and Outreach

  • NZCBI researchers Peter Leimgruber and Melissa Songer have published a combined 33 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals related to Asian elephants and their conservation.
  • NZCBI scientists serve on the IUCN Asian elephant specialist group and are advisors for other elephant conservation organizations.
  • NZCBI scientists regularly train other wildlife biologists in the use of these analytical tools to assist in the conservation of wildlife, including elephants.
  • Collaborating with local organizations and governments to create public education and conservation plans for specific areas.

Elephant Tracking Using Satellite Collars

  • NZCBI scientists pioneered the use of GPS-equipped collars for tracking wild Asian elephants beginning in 1995 to learn about their lives and better conserve them.
    • Tracking data has improved the understanding of how Asian elephants utilize their habitat as well as how they are impacted by increasing human development and habitat loss.
    • Researchers tested tracking collars on the Zoo’s herd to ensure the devices were functional and didn’t negatively impact the animals.
    • Smithsonian scientists have collared 51 wild elephants and supported or assisted with the collaring and tracking of 50 additional elephants in partnership with other organizations.
  • Research impact highlights include:
    • In 2018, NZCBI scientists uncovered an emerging elephant poaching crisis in Myanmar using tracking collars.
      • Tracking data allowed local rangers to find skinned and butchered elephant carcasses in the forest, leading to the discovery of a new poaching boom in the region, driven the demand for elephant skin for use in traditional Chinese medicine. This culminated in a published peer-reviewed paper and collaborations with NGOs and the government of Myanmar (before the coup) to reduce poaching. NZCBI made a series of short films on this research and discovery.
      • Physically moving or translocating elephants causing problems for human communities is a strategy that has been widely used in Asia to try to reduce human-elephant conflict. By placing tracking collars on translocated elephants, Smithsonian researchers demonstrated that relocated animals often come right back to where they were captured or simply continue to cause conflict in their new locations. This finding has led some regions to reconsider the practice and explore other solutions for reducing human-elephant conflict.

Mitigating Human-Elephant Conflict

Smithsonian staff collaborate with local non-government organizations and government across Asia to engage with communities impacted by human-elephant conflict and to work with them on the creation of strategies and solutions for safeguarding people and crops while co-existing with elephants.

  • Scientists work to manage and reduce human-elephant conflict by conducting interviews to learn about local people’s needs and their perceptions of elephants and the problems they cause, utilizing this information to inform strategies for reducing conflict.
  • Strategies include raising awareness, training people in safe behaviors around elephants (e.g., not going out at night alone, keeping food in elephant-safe places, not feeding wild elephants), and low-cost electric fencing to protect houses and crops.

Rewilding

Historically, Asian elephants have been widely used for logging and in the timber industry. Recent changes in logging practices, along with logging bans aimed at stopping deforestation in China, India, Thailand and Myanmar,  have put many of these elephants out of work. Today, there are as many as 15,000 elephants in camps across Asia. Without revenue from timber, the people who take care of these elephants are often unable to afford to feed and care for their animals, creating a welfare crisis without a clear solution.

  • NZCBI researchers are working with various organizations to develop strategies for selectively releasing groups of these captive elephants into suitable habitats. This rewilding could restore these elephants to areas of forest from which they have disappeared while boosting the wild elephant populations.
    • To support this work, the NZCBI’s animal care team are developing a kind of elephant personality test on the Zoo’s herd that could have potential applications with candidate elephants for rewilding in Asia.
      • These tests present elephants with puzzles, and the idea is that the most determined and creative elephants may be more likely to find ways to exploit resources in human spaces, and thus may not be ideal candidates for rewilding.
    • Currently, the team is supporting work by partners in Laos to rewild four former timber elephants. With the help of tracking collars and years of experience gleaned from studying and working with elephants, the goal is to use this project to establish a strategy for successfully rewilding elephants that could be applied in other critical parts of their range.
A close-up photo of an Asian elephant in Myanmar

Genomics

Genomics Experts

  1. Rob Fleischer, Senior Scientist and Head of the Center for Conservation Genomics
  2. Jesus Maldonado, Research Geneticist
  3. Michael Campana, Computational Genomics Scientist

NZCBI geneticists have been studying elephant DNA for over 20 years to further the species’ survival in the wild and enhance the well-being of elephants under human care. Key accomplishments include mapping Asian elephant genomes and the development of new techniques to collect genetic information from animals living in the wild using non-invasive techniques. Accomplishments include:

Mapping Elephant Genomes Overview

The genomes of zoo elephants reveal an abundance of background information on each animal, ranging from disease history to typical behavior, providing an invaluable context for researchers trying to understand the elephant genome.

  • Smithsonian researchers assembled one of the world’s first high-resolution Asian elephant genomes in 2017 using samples from Kandula, then a member of the Zoo’s herd.
    • This high-quality or reference genome — along with eight others sequenced by NZCBI scientists— serves as a key point of comparison for subsequent genetic studies that have included the sequencing of 195 other elephant genomes at lower resolution.
    • Sequenced genomes allow for the creation of accurate ancestry records, or pedigree, for elephants under human care.
    • For zoo elephants in North America, this genetic information is used in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan to create breeding recommendations. These recommendations aim to maximize genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding in elephants in human care.
  • Staff have published 21 peer-reviewed research papers based on their work on elephant genetics and trained six postdocs and six grad students.
  • Researchers are also looking for genes related to the animals’ reproductive success and susceptibility to certain health issues, such as EEHV and tuberculosis.

Non-invasive DNA Capture Overview

Smithsonian researchers have been conducting genetic research on wild elephants using noninvasive sampling techniques since the early 2000s. This means genetic tests can be done without collecting blood or tissue. Scientists use what elephants leave behind, such as hair, skin, and dung. Highlights include:

  • Non-invasive techniques for collecting elephant DNA were initially developed and refined by working with the Zoo’s herd, where researchers could easily assess the accuracy of the techniques by comparing the results to those gleaned from blood and tissue samples.
  • These techniques have been applied to conservation in the wild to assess the genetic health and composition of populations of elephants, estimate the number of individuals in an area, and, if current research efforts bear fruit, even determine the age of individual elephants.
  • Since their development, the NZCBI team has used these techniques to extract DNA from some 3,400 samples.
  • NZCBI researchers are currently testing a new DNA capture kit at the Zoo that could one day allow scientists to easily extract even more genetic information from dung samples.
    • The new technique requires less pristine DNA to be effective, which means the elephant dung does not need to be as fresh.
    • The new DNA capture kit has the potential to allow researchers to easily ask and answer a much larger number of specific questions with accuracy.

Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus and National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory

EEHV Expert

  1. Erin Latimer, Research Specialist and Lab Manager

Elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) is a deadly virus that affects elephants in the wild and is the number one cause of death for young Asian elephants in human care. There are seven types of the virus, which have evolved with elephants for millions of years. Most adult elephants are latently infected with one or more of the herpes viruses, but like other herpes viruses, the virus remains inactive or latent. When active, the virus can cause severe internal bleeding and death. Scientists do not completely understand how the virus spreads, but they believe that it is shed in trunk secretions. There is no cure for EEHV, but with early and aggressive treatment it is possible for elephants to survive it. With immediate treatment, elephant mortality is as low as 25 percent.

  • In 1995, NZCBI staff identified the cause of death of a two-year-old elephant calf named Kumari as a type of herpes virus, resulting in the first formal description of EEHV in elephants.
  • NZCBI opened the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory (NEHL) to exclusively study EEHV. The NEHL has become a huge resource for other zoos looking to conduct testing for EEHV and administer treatment before the disease progresses, greatly increasing the elephant’s chance for survival.
    • Projected to test approximately 5,000 samples in 2022, and staff have published some 22 peer-reviewed papers on the subject.
    • Diagnosed about 50 cases of EEHV in the United States and helped in the diagnosis of another dozen in Asia.
  • By providing training and funding, the NEHL has also helped establish 20 other labs to study the virus, including three in Africa, eight in Asia and nine in North America and Europe.

Endocrinology Research Laboratory

Endocrinology Expert

  1. Janine Brown, Research Physiologist and Endocrinology Research Laboratory Head

NZCBI’s Endocrinology Research Lab improves the management of endangered species by conducting basic research and offering hormone-monitoring and evaluation services to enhance the reproduction, health and well-being of wildlife living in zoos and in the natural world to zoos, wildlife organizations and research collaborators.

  • The Lab is the only facility in the United States providing extensive monitoring services for tracking the reproductive health of zoo elephants and is a national a hub for elephant hormone testing, providing hormone evaluations to assess the reproductive status of hundreds of female elephants from dozens of zoos.
    • The Lab has analyzed samples from more than 400 elephants and accumulated more than 150,000 blood, urine and fecal samples from various research projects.
  • Since 1994, the Lab has hosted 45 graduate students and, beginning in 2005, 15 post-doctoral fellows.
  • NZCBI researchers have published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers on aspects of the biology of Asian and African elephants.
    • A 2013 paper was the largest study ever conducted on the welfare of elephants under human care.
  • Dr. Janine Brown, head of the Lab, and her staff have helped establish a total of seven endocrine labs across Thailand, Laos, Singapore and Sri Lanka, with a new lab in the works in Borneo.