Written by Andrea Pohlman
Welcome to your behind-the-scenes look at Houston Zoo staff conservation in action! Elephant Keepers Kim Klein and Andrea Pohlman are beginning a new project to help endangered Asian elephants, focusing on the population within Lao. The Houston Zoo provides this unique opportunity by way of the Staff Conservation Fund. This program is funded solely by Houston Zoo staff members, who are so passionate about the Zoo’s commitment to saving species that they donate a portion of each paycheck to help save animals all around the world. To date, the Staff Conservation Fund has supported 26 conservation efforts started by zoo staff, and our project is the newest to be approved!
For the past 4 years, The Elephant Conservation Center has focused on starting a new era for Asian elephant conservation within Lao. With over 400 elephants working within the Lao logging industry, the Center has become a rescue sanctuary for overworked elephants, a safe haven for pregnant and nursing elephants, and an educational facility for elephant caretakers and the local community.
At the forefront of the mission is Elephant Conservation Center biologist Anabel Lopez Perez. Anabel is currently working to expand the living area of the rescued elephants at the Center, and has secured a large area of land along Nam Tien Lake. Obtaining a large living space was Anabel’s primary goal for the rescued elephants, and the need to physically engage and mentally stimulate these intelligent animals within their new home is critical to their social development.
This is where Kim and Andrea can provide their collective 13 years of elephant care experience to help develop an exciting new enrichment program for the Center! Enrichment provides a stimulating environment where the elephants can develop social skills, encourage natural behaviors, engage and challenge higher level thinking, and provide physical activity. Kim will be traveling to Lao in October to work with Anabel and her staff on developing, building and evaluating the enrichment activities at the Center. Cultivating these skills among the Center’s staff will allow them to encourage family bonds within the rescued elephants by using enrichment techniques. It is Anabel’s long-term goal to release the rescued elephants back into the forests of Lao, so that they may integrate with wild elephants.
Embarking on a journey halfway across the Earth means that many of our supplies and tools will come from the local markets within Lao. Over the coming weeks, Anabel and her staff will be collecting firehose for constructing a variety of toys and feeders, used tires and PVC tubes, as well as heavy-duty chain for hanging the enrichment. Items that are strong and durable enough for elephants can be difficult to find, so Kim will be transporting almost 200 lbs of supplies with her! Clevices, nuts and bolts and swivels will be packed in Kim’s suitcase, all made from galvanized steel. Galvanized steel is not easy to find in Lao, but is imperative to long lasting and safe elephant enrichment. Another item that Anabel has had trouble locating are soccer balls, so Kim will be bringing several along from the US.
Supporting the Elephant Conservation Center in Lao is one of the many ways that the Houston Zoo is working to save species all over the world. With an estimated population of 40,000 animals left in the wild, Asian elephants are an endangered species. Human-elephant conflict, loss of habitat, poaching and removing individuals from the wild for use as work animals have all caused a sharp decline within the population. Through community education, securing protected habitat, and the rescue and re-habilitation of elephants throughout Lao, the Elephant Conservation Center is actively working to protect and grow the local population, which is currently estimated to be about 700 wild individuals.
Over the coming months, Kim and Andrea will share details of Kim’s time in Lao and her experiences with the elephants and staff at the Elephant Conservation Center. If you would like to learn more about the Elephant Conservation center in Lao, you can visit http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com/