To celebrate Thailand’s National Elephant Day, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, and Thai Deputy Chief of Mission Nantana Sivakua visited the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to get a tour of the “Elephant Trails” exhibit. It is here that we met Kandula, Shanthi, and Ambika, the zoo’s resident elephants. On the trip, it was great to hear Ambassador Kenney’s reflections during our tour. Her face lit up while she told stories of her past visits, with her emphasis on the “extraordinary opportunities for learning that are free.”
What struck me as most interesting about this trip to the zoo was learning that a lot of research about elephants shows the incredible similarity in their cognitive functioning to humans – that is to say the way we think, and react, is very much the same for a variety of emotions including joy, jealousy, grief, and even socialization! During the tour, Ambassador Kenney asked a zoo official if the elephants were bothered by all of the attention they received from visitors. His reply? Not at all- they actually look sad when there are not as many visitors!
Some Asian elephants are becoming endangered, largely due to poaching. Thankfully, there are organizations working to conserve the remaining wild population and breed more in captivity. The Smithsonian Institute is doing research on elephants and, after hearing about this research, the Ambassador emphasized the “importance of protecting animals and doing so before it is too late.” Other research conducted by the Smithsonian and their partners focuses on population control and led to the discovery of a disease that kills one-third of baby elephants. By making discoveries such as these, scientists can take positive steps towards protecting elephants and keeping their populations up. Without this research and current conservation efforts, Asian elephants could be gone in as little as 20 years.
Elephants in the wild are still at risk for poaching and those in conservancies are not necessarily self-sustaining because of sickness, injury, etc. Part of the National Zoo’s initiative is creating an “insurance population” of elephants, a process that takes about 6-7 years to create one whole replacement generation. Why does it take this long?
- An elephant’s pregnancy lasts 22 months, for which only one baby is born
- Additional pregnancies do not usually occur until after the first calf is weaned, about 4-5 years.
So why is this elephant research so important? Elephants’ place in the ecosystem is imperative and, as Ambassador Kenney pointed out, “These are not just animals that sit in a zoo, they are part of the greater infrastructure.” She added, “There is uniqueness in the Thai culture for the role and importance of the elephant.” Do you have elephants in your country? Can you imagine a world without them?
This post was written by Jen Dougherty of the Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs. She attended the event to celebrate Thailand’s National Elephant Day at the National Zoo with the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney. Jen works on eJournal USA Facebook page and @AmericaGov Twitter.