Mar 21

The Year of the Elephants

It has been a year since Jayei, Warren, Kiki, Omma, Lolly and Claire arrived at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the city has given them a massive heartland welcome.

While we all love having these graceful, smart and fun-loving mammals at the zoo, the new elephant program means so much more than an impressive new jewel in our African Grasslands crown. It is a key to global conservation efforts, not only for elephants, but for other animals – including the critically endangered black rhino.

“The plight of the rhinos is a big part of what spurred the elephants coming here,” says Sarah Armstrong, elephant manager at the zoo. “They shared a national park in Swaziland with about 30 elephants, and the elephants are known for turning forests into savannas. They feed for up to 18 hours a day and they can take entire trees down, leaving just a graveyard of sticks. They were decimating the resources, and on top of that, Swaziland was having a major drought.”

Swaziland officials planned to kill half of the elephants in the park – until the Omaha zoo, as well as the Dallas Zoo and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., stepped in to acquire them. The male elephants remaining in Swaziland have been vasectomized to ensure the elephant population doesn’t get out of control there again.                       

"Part of bringing the elephants here is to have a sustainable population of elephants in zoos,” Armstrong explains. “Not only did we save these particular animals, but when people see an elephant in person, they can make the connection that they have a hand in their conservation. The more we learn about elephants and other species, the more we know we can make an impact.”

 

Today, Omaha’s elephants are thriving in their new home, including the Berniece and Bill Grewcock Elephant Habitat as well as the Elephant Family Herdroom, which is the largest indoor space for elephants in North America, and is part of the 28-acre Suzanne and Walter Scott African Grasslands addition to the zoo. "Historically, elephants have been a challenging species to keep in human care,” says Armstrong. “Not long ago, they were not afforded the space they needed to be healthy, active and fit. But now, we have a huge barn, with all soft floors so it's not too hard on their joints. And, of course, they have an enormous outdoor area, full of browse and enrichment.”

 

The fact that our elephants have the space, environment and care that they need to thrive is thanks to the generous support of donors. “Having elephants return to Omaha is a major milestone in our zoo’s history, and it’s something that people are excited to say they are a part of,” says Kiley Thiele, director of development at the Omaha Zoo Foundation.

For more information, please visit OmahaZooFoundtion.org or call (402) 738-2073.