Zoo Elephants to Get Wider Berth

Elephant curator Tony Barthel, left, talks to a staff member in the elephant facility at the National Zoo.
Elephant curator Tony Barthel, left, talks to a staff member in the elephant facility at the National Zoo. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The National Zoo announced plans yesterday for a new $60 million "Elephant Trails" exhibit that will dramatically expand and upgrade its current facility for Asian elephants and try to be a centerpiece for breeding and conservation efforts to stop the endangered species from becoming extinct.

Under the current design concept, the zoo's elephants would have at least four acres of outdoor and indoor space, including a central area in the Elephant House where the animals could socialize 24 hours a day instead of being kept in separate enclosures at night. The herd, which now lives on less than an acre, would grow from three elephants to between eight and 10 adults and their offspring.

Pending approval of federal and city review panels, the zoo expects to start construction next spring, splitting project costs 50-50 between federal funds and private donations.

"Asian elephants are headed for the cliff," zoo Director John Berry said during a news conference yesterday in the Elephant House. "If we do not successfully intervene, this species of elephants could go extinct in our lifetime."

The zoo's expansion of its elephant exhibit comes as several zoos are reevaluating whether to keep elephants, particularly in cold climates. Under pressure from animal rights groups, three zoos have discontinued their elephant exhibits, bowing to concerns that close confinement and hard floors can cause debilitating foot and arthritis problems.

In January, the zoo euthanized an ailing elephant, Toni, because of worsening arthritis. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association said that 40 of the 78 accredited zoos with elephants plan to expand or rebuild facilities for them in the next five years.

The National Zoo plans to modernize and enlarge its 1930s-era Elephant House, converting much of the indoor viewing area used by the public into more space for the elephants, with softer natural and rubberized flooring. The outdoor area will have about 3.5 acres, with separate spots for swimming, mud wallowing and grazing. A walking path connecting the areas will provide exercise for the elephants, and the animals will be able to move indoors or out as they choose.

The zoo will move its giraffes and hippopotamuses, at least temporarily, to other facilities to make more room for the elephants and also use space that is now Parking Lot B. Officials hope one day to use the zoo's 3,200-acre research center in Front Royal as a breeding facility and to keep bull elephants bred at other zoos if those zoos don't have space.

Steve Monfort, the National Zoo's associate director for conservation and science, said the zoo has been in the forefront of research and reproductive programs aimed at learning more about Asian elephants, increasing their numbers and educating others about protecting their habitat in the wild and caring for them in captivity.

There are about 45,000 Asian elephants, including 15,000 captive animals used in the timber and tourist industries and in religious ceremonies. The habitat for wild Asian elephants is declining at the rate of 2 to 5 percent a year, according to Monfort.

"There's no substitute for staring into the eyes of one of these majestic animals," he said.

The expansion of the exhibit, officials said, would come just in time for Kandula, the zoo's 4-year-old bull elephant. When he leaves the matriarchal herd in a year or so, he will remain at the zoo. Kandula's mother, Shanti, was artificially inseminated recently in hopes of achieving another elephant birth.

Suzanne Roy, program director for In Defense of Animals, said the zoo exhibit still won't be big enough, particularly compared with the 40 to 1,000 acres provided by elephant sanctuaries. And breeding elephants at the zoo, she said, won't do much to conserve the species because those elephants won't be returned to the wild.

"If zoos would create a preserve-type situation and would provide an adequate environment, then breeding would occur naturally, and we wouldn't be opposed to that," she said.

Berry, citing research that shows that Asian elephants walk one to three miles a day or less in the wild, said the exhibit will be large enough. He and Monfort said some animal rights groups are well-intentioned and compassionate about elephants, but others want to make zoos extinct.

"We are compassionate, too," Monfort said. "Zoos have a role to play" in reversing the decline of elephants and other endangered species, he said.

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