There’s a new 9-year-old in Washington named Nhi Linh (pronounced NEE-lin). She just moved to D.C. with her mom from the Netherlands. She’s curious, has a short attention span, likes to eat strawberries and — because she’s an Asian elephant — weighs about 5,000 pounds.
If they all sound kind of old, that’s because they are, explains Elephant Trails curator Tony Barthel. There are only 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants on Earth, their natural habitats are growing smaller and the population is aging, he says.
So the hope is that Nhi Linh and her 19-year-old mom, Trong Nhi, will one day have babies that help the species survive. In the meantime, they will make life for Washington’s elephants more closely resemble what it’s like in wild, multigenerational herds.
They should stand out when they make their public debut Tuesday after spending the past month adjusting to the new habitat. “Nhi Linh is super active, zooming all over the place,” Barthel says. Trong Nhi doesn’t like to be separated from her daughter, and she’s much more cautious. When a new door opens, the mom’s reaction is usually to hang back. “While Nhi Linh runs through and doesn’t care. She wants to see what’s on the other side,” he says.
Nhi Linh and Trong Nhi were quarantined when they first arrived in early November. Even after the zoo veterinarians confirmed they were healthy, they didn’t mix with the other elephants right away, although they could see them and hear them. It’s hard to know whether the pair has been communicating with the bigger group, Barthel says, because most elephant sounds are so low that humans don’t notice them. “You feel it more than you hear it,” he says.
The plan is to gradually do face-to-face (or trunk-to-trunk) introductions, starting with Spike. “He’s even-keeled, good-natured and gets along with everybody,” Barthel says. Spike may then help Nhi Linh and Trong Nhi get to know the other female elephants.
Staff members are letting the two new residents set the pace as they teach them how to understand what’s happening at the zoo.
“There’s school for all of the elephants,” Barthel says.
They need to get familiar with medical procedures — such as vaccines and blood draws — and learn zoo routines. Plus, they can play with puzzles to boost their brains. One is a feeder that they have to roll to make the treats come out.
“They understand words and body language, but we mostly talk to their bellies,” Barthel adds.
Like many 9-year-olds, Nhi Linh is a pickier eater than her mom and has a sweet tooth. If there are multiple snacks scattered nearby, she’ll run around checking out her options before deciding what to munch on. Barthel says zoo staff quickly figured out that her favorite foods are fruit and peanut butter sandwiches.
But there’s a lot left to learn about the young elephant, Barthel says. He encourages visitors to watch out for her playful behavior — he recently spotted her kicking a log with her back feet like it was a toy — and how the other elephants react.
“An important part of herd life is to show calves how to do things and correct them,” he says. That probably sounds pretty familiar to human 9-year-olds, too.
If you go
What: Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Where: 3001 Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C.
When: Open daily in the winter, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last admittance at 3 p.m.)
How much: Free, but entry passes are required. Book online at nationalzoo.si.edu.