Elephants of Asia Update: L.A. Zoo Asian Elephants Can Now Share Same Physical Space

Guests may see something new at Elephants of Asia – Billy, Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi are now sharing the same physical space! What does this mean? While the public may not always see the herd together during their visit, guests over time will have the chance to see the herd casually eating, roaming, and engaging with each other. Since the habitat is vast and the elephants are free to roam around, they may also continue to spend time apart if they so choose. These encounters allow the elephants to build deeper bonds and create an enriching experience in their daily routine, enhancing their welfare and well-being.

The Plan

L.A. Zoo elephant care specialists spent several years creating and implementing an introduction plan to ensure optimal safety and well-being for all of the elephants in the herd. Preparations included creating the plan, hiring and training more elephant care staff, consulting with other AZA-accredited institutions, making exhibit changes to accommodate introductions, and getting all of our females comfortable with each other before their introduction to Billy could happen. Tina and Jewel, two older Asian elephants who arrived at the L.A. Zoo in 2010, had already spent most of their lives together, so it was crucial to make sure that Shaunzi was able to ease into the dynamics that Tina and Jewel had already established before moving on to the next step of widening the introductions.

Shaunzi arrived at the L.A. Zoo from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in 2017 following the death of her lifelong companion, Kara. After spending several months getting to know her new home, space, and elephant care team, in early 2018, started the process of introducing Shaunzi to Tina and Jewel. Over the course of the next two years, the team would spend time safely observing the interactions between Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi as they slowly started to get comfortable with each other. Successfully introducing the three females would pave the way for the success of integrating the whole herd with each other. By 2020, the three females were comfortable enough with each other to where they would be able to spend time together in the barn at night. During this process, all three females would still communicate, touch trunks, and interact not only with each other throughout the day, but also with Billy as he continued to eat and roam throughout Elephants of Asia.

In August 2020, the elephant care team started the process of introducing Billy to Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi. Up to this point, Billy, who is still of breeding age, had been kept physically separated from the three females – all of which are past the age of reproduction, and cannot physically withstand breeding. The elephant care specialists and veterinary team, along with the Zoo’s research staff, have been observing Billy’s behavior along with the girls’ behaviors as they entered the same physical environment for the first time. These observations have continued weekly as the herd has spent extended hours together.

Over time, it has been evident that Billy was not interested in breeding with Tina and Jewel, and their interactions were calm, normal, and uneventful. Shaunzi is still very timid and keeps her distance from the girls and Billy, and she is given the same access as the other elephants to other areas of the habitat, which allows her to exit the interactions if that is her choice. These elephants now have the choice of being together or remaining solitary, which will mirror the behaviors they would have in the wild. Moving forward, all four of these Asian elephants will develop new behaviors with each other and have the opportunity to have new, enriching experiences.

dedication to animal welfare

Zoos are constantly working and evolving to better the lives of animals through continuous and various improvements. This requires active, ongoing research into the natural history of the animals as well as observational research into what works and does not work in animal husbandry. Historically, zoos believed that male bull elephants needed to be housed in a solitary environment due to their sometimes unpredictable behavior. The perception was that it was safer to manage male elephants apart from female elephants. However, in the wild, male elephants have social interactions that vary throughout their lifetime. In an effort to give elephants the chance to express more natural behaviors, zoos across the world have shifted their management practices to give male and female elephants time together.

These new interactions will give Billy, Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi the opportunity to grow socially, form bonds with one another, and allow for a fuller and richer life experience. The L.A. Zoo’s goal and plan is always to improve the lives of our animals, and this is another example of our dedication to that goal. The Asian elephants at the L.A. Zoo are ambassadors for their species, allowing guests the opportunity to observe this magnificent animal that is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and fragmentation, human-elephant conflict, and poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

Author: Carl Myers