News & Politics

Wanted: More Big Animals

The National Zoo is running dangerously low on "charismatic megafauna"

Some animals have been relocated to make room for a new elephant exhibit.

Years of renovations and new exhibits at the National Zoo have taken their toll on the institution’s most important residents: the crowd-pleasing animals known as “charismatic megafauna.”

Zoos have learned that to attract visitors, they need to offer 6 to 12 species of charismatic megafauna, the iconic large animals that range from pandas and tigers to elephants and great apes. After relocating its rhinos, giraffe, Nile hippopotamus, and a few pygmy hippos to other zoos, the National Zoo is running dangerously low on the popular animals, says new director Dennis Kelly.

The zoo, which once boasted one of the largest collections of megafauna in the country, is now at the low end of the spectrum, with just Asian elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, orangutans, and three species of bears—sloth, panda, and Andean.

What’s more, the state of the zoo’s pandas is in doubt. The departure of four-year-old Tai Shan to China in February dealt a major blow to the institution, and the clock is ticking for Tai Shan’s parents, too—the loan agreements for Mei Xiang and Tian Tian run out in December. It seems likely, after five years without another successful pregnancy, that future panda breeding will require replacing at least one of the existing pair. Says Kelly: “We’re confident giant pandas will always reside at the zoo.”

Kelly ran Zoo Atlanta before coming to Washington in February. He says one of his priorities here is rebuilding the number of megafauna species. He’s committed to bringing back giraffes within the next four years and hopes to bring back some of the cheetahs from the zoo’s research-and-breeding facility in Front Royal. It seems unlikely the hippos and rhinos will return.

Some of the recent relocations have been because of the new Asia Trail and Elephant Trails exhibits, both part of a long-term vision begun under Kelly’s predecessor, John Berry, who left to become President Obama’s head of federal personnel. Berry’s plan for the zoo, which Kelly hopes to continue, was aimed at upgrading facilities and improving the quality of life for resident species.

Phase one of Elephant Trails opens in September and includes a barn that’s cooled and heated by water from geothermal wells. There also are two new outdoor yards, a second pool, and the Elephant Exercise Trek, an uphill path that allows the animals to walk, run, and forage. Phase two, slated for completion by 2013, includes plans to transform the existing Elephant House into an “elephant community center” where the animals can socialize as they would in the wild.

With a $52-million price tag, the elephant project is one of the largest undertakings in National Zoo history. Kelly hopes the state-of-the-art facility will lure a new herd of Asian elephants, increasing the collection from three to as many as ten adults and their young.

What about polar bears? The zoo would love to make room for them, but it’s a matter of finding the funds to build a suitable habitat—the Arctic mammals require the equivalent of a giant refrigerator at a total cost that would likely match that of the new elephant house.

“Could we do it for $20 million?” Kelly says. “Sure. But would that be enough to do it right? Not even close.”

This article first appeared in the September 2010 edition of The Washingtonian.  

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