All in the Herd

Meet a Very Close-knit Group

BY kabrams

Photography by Ken Bohn

Mary is munching a mouthful of hay. Even as she chews—and chews, and chews—she reaches into the feeder to grab a fresh trunkful. Shaba approaches slowly, trunk extended, then stops and waits. Mary shifts slightly, and Shaba moves forward to feed beside the leader of the herd, touching her gently with her trunk before reaching for the feeder. The subtle social structure of the San Diego Zoo’s elephant herd is strong and healthy.

The Harry and Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey is currently home to seven elephants: six females and one male. Females Sumithi, Devi, and Tembo have been together for 33 years, and the other 3 ladies have joined them over the past 6 years. One of the newcomers, Mary, claims the dominant position, while Sumithi (known to her keepers as Smitty) is second in command. When Shaba joined the herd in 2012 and Mila came in 2013, they met Mary first. The acceptance of the dominant elephant gave them the benefit of a “friend in high places” and helped them ease into the social structure. Today, Mila searches Mary out whenever the group is interacting. Her attachment is understandable. Mary wasn’t just the first San Diego Zoo herd member Mila met—she was the first elephant Mila had met in approximately 35 years!


At 51 years old,
Mary is the oldest elephant in our herd.


At 49 years old, Ranchipur is the fifth-oldest male elephant in North America.

When Mila Met Mary…and Friends

Mila came to the San Diego Zoo from the Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary in New Zealand. She had never been part of a herd. The key reason Mila came to San Diego was because the Franklin Zoo Charitable Trust wanted to find her a home where she could be with others of her kind and where she would be well cared for. The Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center and program for managing older elephants was their first choice. After months of careful planning, the 7,700-pound pachyderm traveled halfway around the world to her new home.

Once Mila had settled into a routine and trusted relationships with her new caretakers in San Diego, it was time for her to begin meeting the herd. When she was in quarantine, she had been able to hear and smell the other elephants, but she hadn’t seen them yet. Mary was chosen to be Mila’s welcoming committee because of her role as the dominant cow. She also has a great track record with welcoming newcomers.

When Mila first saw Mary, she was startled: she flared her ears and became agitated. Yet, she quickly discovered that this “big creature” was not a threat. She gradually developed a strong relationship with Mary, and over a period of months, she was slowly introduced to each member of the herd. “With her history, we had no way of gauging how Mila would do with the herd,” said Robbie Clark, lead keeper.

As it turns out, Mila is socially savvy despite her lack of experience with other elephants. “She is comfortable with the exhibit space; she knows where she feels comfortable, and how to get there when she needs to,” explained Robbie. “She really exceeded our expectations!” Mila is now fully integrated into the herd. She enjoys branches of leafy browse, intriguing enrichment opportunities the keepers create, and, on especially warm days, Mila frequents the mud wallows and shaded areas of the yards.

The Big Bull Surprise

An animal keeper’s job entails many routine tasks, but caring for wild animals also holds a fair number of surprises. As the elephant keepers arrive each morning, they usually find the big male, Ranchipur, standing in one particular area. In fact, the sight of Ranchi (as his keepers call him) in his spot was so common that when he was not there one spring morning, it stopped Alan Van Luven, senior keeper, in his tracks. He walked quickly around the perimeter of the yard looking for Ranchi. He found the mighty bull standing on the side closest to the females. That was another surprise—ordinarily Ranchi not only doesn’t show an interest in the females, he deliberately stays away from where the two yards meet!

HEADER HERE Ranchi’s frequent summer splashes revealed his gorgeous coloring. Usually, he keeps his skin covered with dust, as all elephants do.

Ranchi’s frequent summer splashes revealed his gorgeous coloring. Usually, he keeps his skin covered with dust, as all elephants do.

To the keepers, this behavioral change was a sign that Ranchi was in musth, a period of increased levels of testosterone, typically occurring when the males are ready to breed. “He really surprised us,” said Alan. “Males typically go into musth each year, but Ranchi hasn’t for the last few years.” At 49 years old, Ranchipur is the fifth-oldest male elephant in North America, and his keepers thought perhaps he had passed the point of regular musth.

Bull elephants in musth can be extremely aggressive, but because of the strong foundation of trust and respect established through positive reinforcement training, Ranchi continued to interact well with his keepers. The big guy also got on well with the females during this time. “He was spending a lot of time in his pool,” said Alan. “He’d soak and splash around a bit, then head over to the fence to visit with the girls.” All in all, Ranchipur had a pretty pleasant summer!

Aging Well

Ranging in age from 35 years (Shaba) to 51 years (Mary), our herd is made up of older animals; and, as in humans, with advancing age comes a variety of wellness challenges. The Elephant Care Center was specifically designed to care for the needs of aging elephants.

Last summer, as part of the Zoo’s efforts to keep the herd thriving, the veterinary staff took a close look at the females’ reproductive tract health. San Diego Zoo veterinarians invited a team of specialists with expertise in elephant reproductive physiology to perform thorough assessments, including ultrasounds, in order to better understand the females’ current state of reproductive, urinary, and gastrointestinal health. Having this information as a baseline will allow veterinary staff to provide the highest quality of care and track any changes in the future.

We celebrate all the Zoo’s elephants’ birthdays in January with an enrichment “cake” created by staff and volunteers. Keepers granted Shaba “first dibs”—and she made short work of it!

The Zoo’s nutrition team is also working to implement nutritional adjustments, and novel dietary items are being tried to improve the overall health of the herd in their advanced stage of life. The Elephant Care Center was designed to provide a high quality of life and outstanding care for elephants, and it is certainly fulfilling that role. Through the expertise of their caregivers and the Zoo’s commitment to their well-being, the elephant herd is enjoying their golden years.