The Smithsonian’s National Zoo celebrated the completion of Phase I of Elephant Trails, an innovative and expanded home for Asian elephants, on 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 was 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.
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 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.
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.