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
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.