National Zoo Opens Phase I of Elephant Trails New Home for Asian Elephants

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo celebrated the completion of Phase I of Elephant Trails, an innovative and expanded home for Asian elephants, Sept. 2. Phase I has four elements: a new elephant barn, two new outdoor yards, the Elephant Exercise Trek and The Homer and Martha Gudelsky Elephant Outpost. The Zoo’s goal is to ensure a future for this endangered species, which could soon be extinct in the wild and in zoos. Phase I of Elephant Trails will be open to Zoo visitors Friday, Sept. 3.

The final phase of the exhibit, which includes a complete renovation of the Elephant House, is scheduled to open in 2013.

Elephant Trails will provide the Zoo’s current and future elephants with a variety of indoor and outdoor habitats that support the natural behavior of a multigenerational herd. The total cost of the new elephant habitat (Phase I and II) is estimated at $52 million—a combination of federal funds and private donations.

“The transformation of the Zoo’s home for its Asian elephants is not merely a facelift or simple upgrade of the habitat that was built in the 1930s,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the Zoo. “This massive renovation over a number of years reflects the Zoo’s cutting-edge animal care, breeding, education and scientific research program designed to help elephant experts and scientists better care for elephants in zoos, while saving these endangered, beloved animals in the wild.”

Today, a newly built barn provides more than 5,700 square feet of livable space for the animals and replaces the old Elephant House as their primary living space. Currently the barn, which is not open to the public, houses the Zoo’s three Asian elephants: females Ambika, 62, and Shanthi, 34, and Shanthi’s 8-year-old male offspring, Kandula. The old Elephant House (built in the 1930s) is under complete renovation as part of Phase II of Elephant Trails and will become the Elephant Community Center; a space where visitors can observe the Zoo’s elephants indoors throughout the year. When Phase II is complete, the entire habitat will have the capacity to accommodate a natural, matriarchal herd of elephants and individual bulls—between eight and 10 adult elephants and their young. 

The barn includes a large indoor habitat with “suites” for multiple, as well as individual, elephants. Four suites have rubber flooring and one has a 4-foot-deep sand floor. A hoist beam over each suite is capable of lifting up to 12,000 pounds to move an elephant in an emergency. The hoists also allow keepers to hang enrichment items to stimulate the elephants’ natural behaviors.

The barn provides on-site storage for browse (vegetation such as shoots and leaves that are suitable for animals to eat) and hay with a large room for keepers to prepare daily diets. Browse is stored in a climate-controlled space where misters keep it fresh until it is given to the animals. The barn’s second floor, which includes offices and a conference room, features a catwalk where staff can observe all of the indoor elephant suites. 

The barn boasts many sustainable elements and is designed to be LEED certified. The barn has a green roof (a roof that is covered with vegetation or a garden) and geothermal wells in the adjacent yard that capture heat from deep within the earth to warm the floors and walls of the building. It also has operable skylights with shade cloths designed to regulate ventilation and temperatures. 

The yards have almost two acres of varied terrain and greatly expanded outdoor space. Shade structures in the yard provide sun protection in the summer, and their heaters will offer warmth in the winter. The recirculating pool will be a welcome relief for the elephants from the Washington, D.C., humidity.
The Elephant Trek, an exhibit feature exclusive to the National Zoo, provides an alternative for regular outdoor exercise. A walking path for elephants, the quarter-mile Trek begins at the bottom of the large outdoor yard, near the Outpost, and continues uphill through a wooded area of the Zoo.

The Outpost is an open courtyard featuring interactive exhibits that bring to life the challenges facing Asian elephants in the wild. Visitors will learn about the conservation work being done by Zoo scientists to help save Asian elephants. In addition, the Outpost’s location also offers vistas of the Zoo’s elephants when they are roaming their lower yards.
Highlights of the Outpost include three interactive exhibit tables where visitors can play a giant labyrinth game that moves “an elephant” from habitat to habitat, learn the science behind elephant dung and become an elephant field researcher by examining the clues elephants leave behind in the wild, including footprints, dung and bones.

The Outpost also contains a 17-foot-wide range map that shows the dramatic reduction in Asian elephant habitat over the past 100 years. There are three life-size “willow” elephants made of natural willow branches woven over a stainless-steel frame by topiary artist Steve Manning of the U.K.; a willow bull elephant sits at the front entrance of the Outpost on Olmsted Walk while a willow mother and baby await guests inside. Three life-size elephant portraits help visitors see—in high-definition—a real Asian elephant’s wrinkles, hair and skin texture. An interactive tracking station based on research data by Zoo scientists gives a glimpse into the science and adventure of studying the movements of wild Asian elephants. 

The late Homer and Martha Gudelsky, namesakes to the Outpost, are the parents of Holly Stone, who, with her husband George and children Elianna, Emma, Sophia and Yuri, are longtime friends of the National Zoo. The Gudelskys traveled to India in the 1970s on a trip organized by the Friends of the National Zoo, during which time Homer developed a passion for Asian elephants.

Asian elephant conservation and science are rooted in more than 40 years of research by National Zoo scientists working in the United States and Asia. National Zoo scientists were the first to study Asian elephant ecology and behavior, and the first to use satellite technology to track their movements. National Zoo scientists also advanced elephant breeding through innovative hormone tools that led to the first assisted reproduction techniques for elephants.

Despite much research there is still a great deal scientists do not know about Asian elephants compared to the better-known African elephant. Asian elephants are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; less than 50,000 wild Asian elephants are estimated to exist today. Through Elephant Trails and its research in Asia, the National Zoo will continue to share its knowledge of Asian elephants with visitors and conservation partners to secure a future for this species.