Thursday, February 9, 2012

Topeka Zoo Elephants

To comply with new Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards, the Topeka Zoo will need to house more elephants, or none at all, says zoo director Brendan Wiley.

The zoo currently is home to a 51-year-old female Asian elephant, Sunda, and a 41-year-old female African elephant, Tembo, who have been together since Tembo arrived in 1976.

But Wiley says new standards put in place by the AZA require the Topeka Zoo — should it choose to continue to display elephants — to house together at least three African elephants, or at least three Asian elephants, by 2016.

The ultimate goal is to have new elephants reproduce.

The zoo consequently plans to give the community a voice as it ponders what to do regarding the future of elephants here, Wiley said.

He said the zoo is considering all options, including not having elephants at all.

But Wiley suggested the zoo can best serve the species by continuing to house elephants at a time when their population is expected in coming years to decline significantly in zoos and in the wild.

Wiley talked about the matter this week in the zoo’s elephant barn as keepers nearby took turns washing Sunda and Tembo.

For now, Wiley said, the zoo will apply for a variance from the new requirement this summer when the AZA conducts an accreditation inspection. The AZA will continue to allow variances until 2016.

The AZA serves as an accrediting body for zoos and aquariums and ensures accredited facilities meet higher standards of animal care than are required by law. Losing accreditation hurts a zoo’s reputation and puts it at risk of not being able to exchange animals with other accredited zoos.

AZA spokesman Steve Feldman said the new rules are targeted in part at encouraging the breeding of elephants.

The Wichita Eagle reported last week that the new standards require the Sedgwick County Zoo, which houses two elephants, to create space for a third.

Wiley said the AZA doesn’t have a problem with the amount of space available for elephants at the Topeka Zoo, and he considers the zoo’s elephant area sufficient to house four pachyderms.

But the future of elephants at the Topeka Zoo is complicated by the reality that Sunda and Tembo are nearing the ends of their lives.

Wiley said Tembo is 41, while the entire population of North American zoos include only one African elephant older than 50.

He also said that while Asian elephants live longer than African elephants, the 51-year-old Sunda is probably within the last 10 years of her life.

Still, Wiley said that just because the elephants are old doesn’t mean they can’t be of value helping to rear baby elephants and meet the social needs of other elephants.

In deciding the future of its elephant exhibit, he said the zoo needs to take into consideration the opinions of “thousands upon thousands” of visitors who feel an attachment to Sunda and Tembo.

Animal advocates recently sent hundreds of emails to Topeka City Council members asking them to send the two aging pachyderms to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. The council two years ago rejected a proposal to make such a move.

Wiley said sanctuaries can be great places for elephants but typically aren’t open to the public, aren’t as invested in conservation as zoos are, and don’t breed their elephants.

Wiley said the importance of breeding was stressed at a conference he and the zoo’s elephant manager attended this past May in St. Louis involving representatives from zoos that keep elephants.

Wiley said participants learned about how elephants in Africa and Asia are being killed in large numbers, largely because they create conflict with humans by doing such things as causing agricultural damage.

The AZA website says the world’s African elephant population fell from an estimated 1.3 million in the 1970s to between 470,000 and 690,000 now. The site says the rate of decline has been less dramatic for Asian elephants as their population base was far smaller to begin with, but their estimated population has fallen to between 40,000 and 50,000.

Wiley said conference participants also were informed that unless North American zoos do something over the next 30 years, the overall elephant population at those zoos will decrease by about half because elephants are getting older and dying.

The AZA website says 290 African and Asian elephants are currently kept in 73 of its 225 member institutions.

The site says AZA members support and participate in numerous conservation projects that take strategic and effective action to protect and conserve elephant populations, as well as raise awareness and engage the public in conservation action.

“Accredited zoos are working to do what’s right for the community and for elephants to make sure we’re giving back to the species in every way possible,” Wiley said.

He suggested zoos can best serve the species by using their space and facilities to reproduce elephants and educate people about them.

Wiley said he has begun reaching out to city council members regarding what they think the Topeka Zoo’s future regarding elephants should be.

He said members of the Friends of the Topeka Zoo likely would receive a letter soon regarding the topic.

“There will probably be a series of community meetings in the not-too-distant future,’ Wiley also said.

He concluded: “Our role is to do what’s right for these two elephants, for the elephant population as a whole and for this community and its zoo, but that responsibility is now greater than it’s ever been with what we know about elephant populations as a whole, so we are evaluating the future of elephants here and looking at what this zoo can do to best meet the need for the species as a whole. We don’t know what the answer is yet, but we know it’s not simple. The next few months will involve a lot of community conversation and when we choose the direction we’re going to go in, it’s going to be one we can take pride in.”

Courtesy of Mark Rosenthal

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