On September 2, I joined Dennis Kelly, the National Zoo’s new director, to celebrate the completion of Elephant Trails: Phase I. In the new courtyard, a large crowd of staff, members of the diplomatic community, donors and members of the press had gathered in the warmth of a sunny summer morning. As I began my remarks, two surprise visitors appeared on the green landscape behind me: 34-year-old Shanthi and her 8-year-old male offspring, Kandula. The youngster waded into the pool and completely upstaged me by putting on a show, showering himself with water. All by himself, he had declared the new elephant project a success!
Elephant Trails, an exciting, innovative and enlarged home for the Asian elephants at the Zoo, incorporates four components—two acres of outdoor yards with a recirculating pool; a new elephant barn serving as living space (closed to the public but designed for scientific observations); a quarter-mile-long Elephant Exercise Trek; and the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Elephant Outpost, an open courtyard where visitors can view the elephants roaming outdoors.
In the courtyard space visitors can learn from new exhibits, study a large map showing the Asian elephant habitat’s reduction over the past 100 years, and work with an interactive tracking station based on research data gathered by Zoo scientists. Visitors can even explore how our scientists learn about an elephant’s health and well-being at the realistic-looking, simulated elephant poop station (kids love it!).
Only about 30,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants exist in the wild today and they are considered highly endangered. The National Zoo is a leader in making a difference to save these magnificent animals. Our scientists have been working with Asian elephants for more than 40 years—both in Asia and in collaboration with other zoos in the United States. Our scientists were among the first to study elephant ecology and behavior and the first to use satellite technology to track elephant movements. We have advanced elephant breeding through innovative hormone tools that led to the first assisted reproduction techniques for elephants. Recently, our animal care team performed a series of artificial inseminations on Shanthi. Although it is too soon to tell if she is pregnant, we remain hopeful that a new member will join our herd.
Phase II of Elephant Trails—to be completed in 2013—will renovate the old Elephant House so that visitors will be able to observe the elephants indoors year round. When the two phases are complete, the entire habitat will be able to accommodate a natural, matriarchal herd of elephants and individual bulls—between eight and 10 adults and their young. Elephants are social animals, and such a facility will enhance their ability to live in a more natural habitat while enabling scientists to better carry out their research.
People often underestimate how facilities, buildings and the use of space can reflect an institution’s core values and aspirations. As the Smithsonian moves into a new era, our facilities will reflect our new directions. They will not only appeal to our aesthetic sense, but also accommodate innovative green technology to reflect our commitment to sustainability and advance our ability to do cutting-edge research. Elephant Trails: Phase I has 30 geothermal wells drilled approximately 450 feet deep that aid in environmental control of the buildings through radiant floor heating and heat pumps for cooling. Skylights provide daylight and natural ventilation to optimize energy performance. Rainwater is captured and stored in cisterns for irrigating the landscape. Green roofs on the barn and filtration building are planted-with low maintenance native vegetation to reduce stormwater run-off, provide natural insulation, and create a habitat for birds, butterflies and other fauna.
The buildings and spaces also open new avenues for research, education and public outreach as well as give the elephants a living space that encourages them to build a social system and interact with their environment. Already our scientists have found that wise 62-year-old Ambika is using some of the bamboo shoots added to her diet to make tools.
When my grandchildren visited the Zoo earlier this year, they, like countless thousands of children, were enchanted by Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula. These were the first real elephants they had ever seen. I encourage you to visit the Zoo and enjoy this marvelous new facility.
Posted: 1 October 2010