Sabgina's Updates: The Asian Elephants at the Houston Zoo

Elephants are the largest mammals on the land. Two species are traditionally recognized, African elephants and Asian elephants. They are slightly different; African elephants have large ears shaped similar to the continent of Africa while Asian elephants have small and rounded ears. African elephants are taller with a shoulder height between 9-13 feet while Asian elephants reach 6.5 – 9 feet at their tallest point. African elephants weigh between 8,800 – 15,400 pounds while Asian elephants weigh 6,500 – 13,200 pounds. African elephants are found in Africa and Asian elephants are found in Asian countries. Elephants in captivity do not face the pressures of elephants in the wild such as drought, habitat loss, poaching and conflicts with people. Elephants in the Houston Zoo are not brought in from the wild for entertainment; they are brought in from other organizations or as rescues.

The Houston Zoo has Asian elephants. I was happy when my supervisor Renee Bumpus assigned me to join elephant zookeepers one day on their daily duties!! Oh my God!!!! What can I say other than awesome!! Not only did this excursion of elephant exhibit exceed my expectations, it went far and above my thinking!! I was warmly welcomed to the elephant exhibit by the zookeepers to join them on their daily work; it was one of the best experiences of my life! It was my first time to be near Asian elephants. My tour was led by Martina. Martina – Elephant Supervisor was fun, informative and she is obviously in love with her job, I learned a lot from her!

sabinga elephant

Keepers provide a lot of comfort to the elephants and work every day to build a relationship with the elephants. For humans, the most complex and important emotion is love, and we describe it in a multitude of ways. And from what I learn from Save the Elephants organization I am working with in Kenya, the African elephants society is a very female-based hierarchy, and the loyalty that a herd shows to a matriarch is intensely strong. They will follow her wherever she goes: perhaps that is a manifestation of love of a different sort, the same as what I saw at the elephant’s exhibits with Asian elephants, the powerful bond between (Shanti) a mother elephant, and (Duncan) her calf is an easy one for me to understand but for Martina conversation with elephants is more different and unique! Martina uses signs and voice to talk with an elephants and it seems like the elephants totally understand, it’s more complex than writing a computer program by using coding I think!! I do not know whether to put in English speaking society or what to call that peculiar communication between zoo elephant’s keepers and Asian elephants on exhibit.

Elephants in the Houston Zoo are well taken care of, the daily schedule was tight, 7 – 8:30 am was breakfast time, Houston Zoo keepers work hard to ensure that the elephants get breakfast and they balance the daily diet. Keepers have strictly followed diet timetables that contain daily diets, weekly diets and monthly diets. The level of care the keepers provide for the elephants results in great treatment and health of the elephants.

8:30 am – 10:00 am, bathing time, it’s a typical bath; every part of the body is scrubbed with soap before being rinsed.  Keepers use the bath time to visually examine every part of the animal’s bodies and clean their skin while also providing important interaction and training opportunities for the elephants. Foot care follows a daily schedule that guarantees that all four feet will receive a pad trim and nail file once a week.  The elephants are trained to accept and respond to this care. It’s the best treatment.

10:00 am to 11:00 am, cleaning of barns and elephants released out for exercise through play behaviors such as swimming and interaction with enrichment items like swinging a tire back and forth, digging in the ground with their feet, and standing on the exhibit fencing while stretching to reach hay and also walking helps the elephants maintain weight, muscle tone, and joint flexibility.

The illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks has soared dramatically, causing a wild population of elephants to continue to decline in Africa and Asia. The Houston Zoo and other zoos are playing vital roles as stewards of an important part of the world’s heritage while supporting conservation in the wild.


Sabinga collecting marine debris in Galveston

The Houston Zoo is excited to welcome a new intern who comes to us all the way from Kenya, in East Africa. Sabinga is in the United States participating in the Community College Initiative Program (CCIP). The Community College Initiative Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Northern Virginia Community College onbehalf of the Community College Consortium (CCC) in partnership with Houston Community College. While participating in this program, he will join us at the zoo as an intern to learn all about what a modern-day zoo is like! Sabinga is already part of the conservation community as he has been working with Save the Elephants in Kenya for over 8 years. He will be documenting his experiences at the Zoo and we will share his thoughts with you here on our blog! Stay tuned for more!

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