Activists promote the idea of a vast preserve to establish a self-sustaining herd.
Some zoo officials are skeptical.
By Julie Stoiber
Watching elephants in the wild is an experience so powerful that wildlife author Douglas H. Chadwick describes it as "a whole different level of being alive."
It's an experience most of us won't have, though, since elephants' natural habitats are far away, in Africa and Asia.
And so we visit zoos, many of which are rethinking exactly how the world's largest land mammals should be shown. Last month, for example, the Philadelphia Zoo announced that it did not have the money to build a new savanna for Petal, Dulary, Bette and Kallie, but said it hoped someday to replace the quarter-acre elephant exhibit and 1,800-square-foot barn.
"I understand how everyone wants to have elephants, but if they understood how it really is for the elephants, they'd want them someplace better," said Joyce Poole, a noted author and researcher who has worked in Kenya for decades. "In the sort of captivity we're subjecting them to, they don't have the space to really be elephants."
Poole and others are promoting a different idea: Build vast preserves in warm areas of the United States where elephants could breed and form herds, and show the public their awe-inspiring range of behaviors - from imitating truck and animal sounds to gently waking their babies by touching them with their hind feet.
"Elephants are brilliant," said Chadwick, a Montana resident and author of
The Fate of the Elephant. "Roaming and exploring and being in a big social group is what they do."
One zoo is looking at land for such a compound, said Les Schobert, a 29-year veteran of the zoo industry who now "consults with anybody who wants to improve life for elephants." He declined to identify the zoo, since its plans are not public.
"Elephants are in this country and they're going to be in this country, and if we can develop a self-sustaining population, we should," Schobert said.
Kathleen F. Wagner, senior vice president for conservation and education at the Philadelphia Zoo, acknowledges that "the idea certainly is interesting, but I think we'd miss a whole lot of people. Most of the urban population centers wouldn't be reached by these reserves."
Video links allowing zoo-goers to watch free-living elephants could not substitute for the real thing. "There's absolutely nothing like seeing an elephant," Wagner said.
Without animals that visitors can see, hear, smell - and, in some cases, touch - zoos cannot achieve their mission of promoting conservation, Wagner said.
This fiscal year, the zoo will contribute more than $250,000 to projects and organizations focused on saving animals in their natural habitats, Wagner said, and it also will free employees for field work.
"Zoos are doing positive work for wild creatures," said Matthew Lewis of the World Wildlife Fund. "It is unfortunate they can't always provide ideal environments, but if the message is getting across that this species is in danger, that this isn't just a display of an interesting creature, it can have a positive impact."
Conservation is no small matter: Both African and Asian elephants are endangered. They are huge eaters, consuming hundreds of pounds of vegetation and up to 50 gallons of water a day, yet their habitats are shrinking. Because of their size, they have few if any natural predators. But run-ins with humans - poachers cutting off tusks with chain saws, aggrieved farmers poisoning them - threaten their survival.
"They are coming into more and more conflict with people," said Poole, the writer and researcher, in an interview from her office in Norway. "In Africa, they'll get into a maize field, and they can polish it off in a night."
Fewer than 60,000 Asian elephants and 600,000 African elephants are estimated to live in the wild.
"If you have a chance to be around them, you just shake your head, going, 'Wow,' " Schobert said.
In Zambia, he watched as a matriarch approached a river with a herd of 30.
"She pushed a couple of them in, and one by one they all got in. They all knew to follow her," he said. "So cool."
Even after 30 years studying elephants, Poole said, she continues to be amazed by their expressiveness and ability to communicate.
In Kenya, she came upon a mother hovering over a stillborn calf.
"She guarded that baby for three days. She was stuck on the plain with no water," Poole remembered.
So Poole filled a basin with water and drove it out. The mother emptied it. Poole kept refilling the basin and driving it out until the mother's thirst was slaked.
"She reached in afterward and touched me all over my chest with her trunk," Poole said, "as if to say thank you."
Schobert, the consultant, believes people would be willing to travel some distance to a natural setting, instead of up an interstate to a zoo, if it meant they could see elephants acting like the playful, curious, social and wonderfully dexterous creatures they are.
"There's great value in beholding an elephant," said Chadwick, the Montana author. "If it's true that people get inspired and contribute to conservation, then you need a big, stimulating place. Ultimately, it's a moral question."