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With fewer elephants, Knoxville and other zoos consider species' future

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Posted at 8:28 AM, Nov 01, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-01 23:10:13-04

Knoxville Zoo bull elephant Tonka could help revive American zoos’ aging African elephant population. His potential is a small, yet important, piece of an pachyderm-size challenge for the Knoxville park and zoos across the country.

Today elephants live in fewer zoos than they did a decade ago. Some 15 parks — including those in San Francisco, Detroit, Baton Rouge and both Chicago zoos — have closed elephant habitats in the last 10 years. Institutions with elephants often care for aging individuals; about half of the 162 African elephants in zoos are 30 or older. As older animals die experts predict others may not be available to replace them.

And trends in how zoos exhibit elephants could mean more animals at fewer zoos. By fall 2016 Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ standards will require zoos with elephants to keep at least three of the social, intelligent creatures. Few elephants are born in zoos by natural breeding or artificial insemination. A total of 24 African elephants have been born in AZA-accredited zoos since 2008. Four later died. Only one was born each of the last two years. (An elephant pregnancy lasts 22 months. After she gives birth a female usually can’t get pregnant for another three years.)

That’s why Tonka, 36, is so important. The 14,500-pound animal ranks as one of four most valuable males in the AZA Species Survival Plan aimed at reviving the species. Brought from Africa at age 2, Tonka isn’t related to any other captive elephant. He hasn’t fathered offspring and has had limited chances to try.

To do his part Tonka likely will leave Knoxville in one to two years. There’s no immediate place for him, said Knoxville Zoo Executive Director Lisa New. “But I think there is enough interest and enough opportunities that it’s just finding the one that’s the best fit for him,” she said.

If Tonka represents elephants’ possible future, Knoxville’s two female pachyderms illustrate a different nationwide concern. At 34 and 30 Jana and Edie are too old to be first-time mothers.

A Crossroads

In Knoxville, zoo administrators have begun discussions that could decide if elephants are part of the park’s long-term future. “I think our zoo, like every zoo, is at a crossroads because of this national issue,” said New.

Currently 300 African and Asian elephants live in 66 AZA accredited zoos and two AZA-approved locations. (Zoos have fewer Asian elephants — 138 in 34 institutions — than Africans.) That means about one-third of the 182 accredited zoos, safari parks and science or nature centers care for elephants.

Thirty-nine zoos are home to 162 African elephants including Knoxville’s Tonka, Edie and Jana. Nearly half of those animals — four males and 75 females — aren’t part of the AZA breeding plan. Animals often are excluded for health or age; Jana and Edie are among them.

That leaves 83 African elephants — 33 bulls including Tonka and 50 females — to sustain the species in zoos.

David Hagan, the vice coordinator of the AZA African elephant SSP, hopes science will help. He’s also the Indianapolis Zoo curator of its plains and primates exhibits. At Indianapolis six African elephants were born from 2000 to 2012, all through artificial insemination. Hagan looks at that zoo’s three females ages 2 to 9 as part of a future generation of elephant mothers.

Another option to help revive the numbers, say experts, would be for parks to import animals from Africa. Such ventures are expensive, require government permits and have happened just twice in the last 11 years.

SETTING A COURSE

At Knoxville the future for elephants is part of a broader study as the park details a master plan for new and renovated sections.

By next summer architectural concept designs will recommend possible changes to the zoo’s 1.75-acre Stokely African Elephant Preserve that opened in 2002 and larger Grasslands Africa habitat linked to it. Since the master plan first calls for work in other exhibits, no major changes at Stokely or Grasslands would start for at least five years. Stokely meets all current elephant care standards, New said.

No plans call for the elephant exhibit to close. “Right now the concept design does not say ‘no elephants,’” said New. “We would look at Grasslands Africa with elephants, perhaps with their facility expanded. Or we would look at a site elsewhere in the zoo for elephants. The current commitment is that we want elephants in the future.”

It’s not enough to want the animals. “The (species) population status is driving all discussions, “New said. “So many zoos are having these conversations because the population is aging and it is not self-sustaining.” Those numbers must factor in determining the “type of elephant program we want,” she said.

The zoo could decide to house only aging elephants like Jana and Edie. “They are still social animals and wonderful public ambassadors,” New said. That’s the approach at “Giants of the Savanna” at the Dallas Zoo, one of about 20 parks in the last decade that built or has plans to build elephant exhibits. Tagged the “Golden Girls,” five female African pachyderms age 32 to 44 wander Dallas’ 11-acre, $27 million habitat incorporates elephants with zebra, ostrich and other species. Dallas officials say the exhibit that opened in 2010 is one of world’s largest zoo elephant habitats.

Another option for Knoxville would be modifying Stokely for only male elephants not needed for breeding by other parks. Male-only herds mimic those in the wild and are needed in zoos, said Hagan. The Birmingham Zoo is the first AZA-accredited zoo with a male-only African elephant herd. Four animals ages 9 to 33 live in the $12.5 million “Trails of Africa” that opened in 2011.

Less probable would be for Knoxville to become a zoo that’s a breeding facility. “Before I built that, I would have to have some assurance I could get (breeding) elephants,” said New.

Knoxville’s last two elephants were born in 1978. The park once hoped Tonka and Jana would become parents, placing them together sporadically from 1999 to 2001. After Tonka knocked Jana down those efforts ended. The zoo tried impregnating Edie four times by artificial insemination during 2007 to 2009. Each $10,000 attempt was unsuccessful.

Finances factor in the zoo’s elephant future. New exhibits in other parks often cover several acres and have cost estimates starting at $11 million. “The bar is getting higher and higher,” New said. “After we determine what kind of program we want, the questions are ‘Can we build what the elephants need? Can we afford to build it? Do we have the resources to sustain it?’ ”

NO EASY ANSWERS

Before the zoo changes its elephant exhibit Tonka likely will go to a park with breeding-age females. His departure would leave the zoo with two elephants and another wrinkle in the program.

Changing AZA standards require accredited zoos to house at least three elephants. Currently those with fewer animals can get variances but exceptions won’t be given after September 2016. When Tonka leaves the zoo must “have a firmer decision by then about what kind of program we want,” New said. One option would be to bring a male in from another zoo. But that also may not be so simple.

“This is something zoo directors I talk to also struggle with. We don’t have an elephant in reserve; there’s isn’t a reserve. It’s an aging population, and people need their elephants for their own herds,” said New.

New thinks there’s a 90 percent possibility the Knoxville Zoo will have elephants in 10 years. “Maybe I’m being optimistic,” she said. “But we want to be sure that we can be great at elephants. We need to think what’s best for our elephants? What’s best for elephants in North America? And what’s best for the Knoxville Zoo? All those things are very important.”

By the numbers

4-6 tons – African elephant weight

3 – elephants at Knoxville Zoo

8-14 feet – African elephant height at the shoulder

40,000 – muscles in an elephant’s trunk

22 months – elephant gestation period

1 – African elephant born in North American zoos in 2014

162 – African elephants in 39 North American zoos

138 – Asian elephants in 34 zoos

5 – zoos with both African & Asian elephants

40-50 plus years – African captive life span

Sources: Knoxville Zoo, American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, National Elephant Center