The Smithsonian’s National Zoo has two new residents: a mom-and-daughter pair of Asian elephants. The 19-year-old Trong Nhi and 9-year-old Nhi Linh arrived in D.C. late Sunday night after a transatlantic flight, and are currently being quarantined at the zoo. If all goes well, a baby elephant or two could also soon be on the way, zoo officials say.
Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh are by far the youngest elephants at the zoo, and zookeepers hope they will mate with the lone male, 41-year-old Spike.
If mating is successful, it would be big news — it’s been almost two decades since there was a baby elephant at the National Zoo.
“It’s pretty likely that we’ll have young elephants in the relatively near future,” says Bryan Amaral, acting head of animal care sciences at the zoo. “We’re not going to rush it by any means, but we are certainly not putting the brakes on any breeding. I suspect that our male, Spike, and the females will make that happen in relatively short order.”
Trong Nhi and Nhi Linh are a gift from the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands, where they were both born. The National Zoo got a recommendation from the the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ species survival plan to breed the two females with Spike. The program is a sort of Match.com for zoo animals, pairing up animals that are likely to mate successfully.
The goal is to establish a self-sustaining population of elephants in zoos in North America through selective breeding.
“It’s really important that we bring fresh genetics as well as reproductively viable animals in the population,” says Amaral.
In the wild, elephants are known for traveling long distances. But nothing could have prepared Trong Nhi and Nhi Lihn for their trip across the Atlantic. In Rotterdam, they were loaded into elephant transport crates and taken to Liège, Belgium. They were then put into a giant cargo plane and flown 3,703 miles to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, then driven by truck 238 miles to D.C., where they were unloaded by crane.
“It’s not as difficult as you’d think,” says Amaral. “The red tape is a little tougher to get through than the actual moving around the elephant.”
The elephants arrived in Washington around 8:45 pm, and zoo staff spent until about midnight helping to unload them and get them settled in their new home. The animals are now quarantining in the elephant barn, with access to an outdoor area not visible to the public. Zoo officials say the newbies will be gradually introduced to the rest of the herd, and will likely make their public debut sometime in December.
The two new arrivals join a herd of senior elephant citizens: Kamala, Swarna, Bozie are all 47; Maharani is 32. Elephants in captivity typically don’t live past their mid-forties. In 2020, the zoo lost two of its elderly elephants, Shanthi and Ambika. At the time of her death, 72-year-old Ambika was the third-oldest elephant in North America, and had lived at the National Zoo for nearly 60 years. Spike, the 17,500 pound male elephant, came to the National Zoo from Florida in 2018.
Asian elephants have a native range that spans 13 countries. The species is considered endangered, with a total population of between 30,000 and 50,000 — less than half of what it is thought to have been at the beginning of the 20th century. The main threat to the animals is habitat loss — Asian elephants’ current range is just 15% of what it was historically.
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