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What Killed the National Zoo’s Elephant?
Comments () | Published April 18, 2011
Elephant keeper Marie Galloway worries that future generations won't be able to enjoy the gentle giants she cares for.

By all measures, the future doesn’t look good for Asian elephants. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ Red List, which tracks the global inventory of plant and animal species, has categorized the species as endangered since 1986. Its latest report says that wild populations have dropped by 50 percent in three generations. And while the IUCN puts the total number of wild Asian elephants between 40,000 and 50,000, some experts think fewer than 30,000 could remain. By comparison, there are about 500,000 African elephants in the wild.

The IUCN’s Asian-elephant Web page reads like a wistful history report, tracking where the elephants used to roam and how they once behaved in their natural surroundings. It cites habitat loss, poaching, and human mismanagement as the greatest threats. Before long, conservationists fear, a paper trail might be all that’s left.

For Marie Galloway, it’s sobering to think that future generations might never know the gentle giants she cares for. More than most, she understands just how smart and docile they can be. Research shows that elephants have complex brains capable of solving problems and learning new skills. They’ve been known to show empathy and altruism and to mourn a herdmate’s death, pausing over a carcass in a moment of silence.

As the number of Asian elephants in the wild declines, the future of the species depends on the captive population. Because of the stakes, the captive-elephant gene pool is monitored to keep it free of inbred mutations. Mating is orchestrated—and in some cases, engineered—to produce genetically optimal results. And diseases such as Kumari’s killer are pursued by experts around the world.

The National Zoo has been a leader in animal conservation for decades. In the 1960s, as most zoos were just beginning to shed their amusement-park identities and rebrand themselves as science-based institutions, the National Zoo had already hired its first full-time veterinarian. In 1965, it established the Zoological Research Division, a unit charged with studying the reproduction, behavior, and ecology of zoo animals.

Today the zoo’s elephant researchers are attacking the population problem on numerous fronts. They’re using satellites to study the movement patterns of wild elephants and developing noninvasive techniques to track individual animals. They’re also studying elephant reproduction and exploring artificial mating methods to improve birth rates in zoos.

Zoo pathologists are doing their part, too. “We help animals not as individuals or as pets but as a species,” Walsh says. “By identifying what killed one animal, we can apply that knowledge to an entire population and help make sure the whole species survives.”

Marie Galloway stood with Shanthi and watched the scene unfold: Keepers came running. Vets rushed to the yard. CPR. A crash cart. For 30 minutes they tried to resuscitate Kumari. 

Since birth, Kumari had drawn crowds. She was the first elephant calf born at the National Zoo, a shining example of conservation and hope for a species facing extinction. 

“We built grandstands inside the building and created a queue to control the people coming through to see her,” says John Lehnhardt, the elephant curator at the time. “Kumari was the biggest thing happening.”

Even her birth had been an event. Galloway and a colleague had stayed overnight at the zoo to monitor the labor. Thinking they had a while to go, they left to get dinner. But by the time they came back, the calf was already in the birth canal. 

Galloway called Lehnhardt and told him he’d better come quickly. “I lived in Northern Virginia and made it to the zoo in 25 minutes,” he says. “Within five minutes, we had Kumari.” 

The staff was overjoyed: The baby seemed healthy, and Mom was calm. But when Kumari tried to stand up, she fell and let out a yelp. The noise startled Shanthi, who had never been around a baby elephant. She went with her strongest instinct—to protect her herd against an intruder—and stepped hard on Kumari’s head.

What had been a moment of joy turned to panic. Although Kumari seemed to recover, it was the first dip in a long roller coaster of health problems: Kumari’s lack of weight gain, a weak immune system, a blood transfusion.

“She never thrived,” Galloway says. “She was a sweet elephant but never the robust thing she should have been.” 

Galloway and her colleagues had just started to feel they were out of the woods when Kumari died. Her death felt like a movie that ended too soon. But for the National Zoo’s pathology team, it was the beginning.

Next: What they found inside Kumari's body.

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Posted at 11:30 AM/ET, 04/18/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles