WELCOME, TILLY. This July 30, 2018 photo shows a baby
elephant named Tilly at the Houston Zoo in Houston. Tilly is the
second Asian elephant calf born at the Houston Zoo in as many
years, a major feat for zoo personnel in an era where just two
to four elephants are born in captivity across the country every
year. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #16 (August 20, 2018),
Newborn elephant at Houston Zoo welcomed,
By Alex Stuckey
HOUSTON — Tilly reached her wrinkly trunk through the steel
cables of the Houston Zoo’s elephant enclosure on a recent
morning, wiggling it side-to-side as if waving hello to the
gathering crowd of visitors.
The Houston Chronicle reported that just a few feet
and a couple of fences stood between the six-week-old elephant
and a little boy of about seven who, at the sight of her
flopping trunk, waved back furiously.
"Hi baby elephant!" he shouted to the about 500-pound
Tilly wasn’t actually waving, she just lacks the muscle
control to hold her long snout steady. But those facts certainly
didn’t matter to the excited boy, whose mother snapped photos of
Tilly is the second Asian elephant calf born at the Houston
Zoo in as many years — a major feat for zoo personnel in an era
where just two to four elephants are born in captivity across
the country every year. Tilly, for example, is one of only two
elephants born in captivity in the U.S. this year, according to
Absolut Elephant, the oldest and largest database of elephants
"To have two calves born in back-to-back years is a great
accomplishment," said Aaron Halling, a Houston Zoo elephant
keeper. "This is special. It’s just an awesome feeling."
The zoo’s herd now stands strong at 10, including Thai, a
12,000-pound bull who fathered both Tilly and her older sister,
Joy, now one.
The Houston Zoo’s elephant population growth stands in stark
contrast to many other zoos across the nation, where officials
have been forced to close their exhibits due to lack of space.
In fact, instead of shuttering their exhibit, Houston has
doubled its elephant enclosure to 3.5 acres, adding in 2017 a
7,000-square-foot barn specifically for the male elephants,
75,000 square feet of yard, and a 160,000-gallon, 12-foot-deep
But that’s not all the zoo is doing to help the animals,
which have been on the endangered species list under the U.S.
Endangered Species Act since 1976. Houston Zoo officials have
spent about a decade working with conservation partners in
Borneo to protect the Asian island’s 1,500 elephants from
extinction. Zoo keepers also have recently been in communication
with elephant conservationists in Laos, hoping to start a
"The health of the forest is in many ways connected to
healthy elephant populations," said Peter Riger, the Houston
Zoo’s vice president of conservation.
"Their need for protected areas and migration corridors
literally protects hundreds of species, including amphibians,
insects, mammals, birds, and many others," Riger said. "In turn,
the health of the landscape supports human communities in their
As Tilly posed at the fence line for her adoring fans, Joy
came plodding across the yard to share some sisterly cuddle time
with the newborn.
Joy has a different mom, but she has accepted Tilly as a
full-blood sibling — a common occurrence in wild elephant herds,
When a baby elephant is born in the wild, it is raised and
protected by the entire herd, led by a matriarch. Because
elephants are social creatures, they depend on those
interactions to survive, according to the Defenders of Wildlife,
a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit conservation organization.
This family structure is one of the reasons the Association
of Zoos and Aquariums created a rule requiring accredited zoos
to have more than one elephant — at least three females (or the
space to hold them), two males, or three of mixed gender — on
The association’s requirements also force zoos to create more
space for the animals. There isn’t an exact acreage amount
requirement per pachyderm, but the rules stipulate that there
must be enough space and "environmental complexity" to stimulate
behaviors, including social interactions, that would happen in
"If the elephants are healthy and socially adapted, then
whatever is being provided meets the standard," according to the
Since those requirements went into place about eight years
ago, the association has seen a decrease in the number of zoos
with elephants. Only 32 facilities had Asian elephants and 37
facilities had African elephants, association data shows,
compared to 2011 when 41 institutions had Asian elephants and 42
institutions had African elephants.
In Houston, the 10-member herd has 3.5 acres at their
disposal. There are multiple water features where they can play
and cool off and an abundance of toys. It’s not uncommon to see
Joy dragging a tire across the yard with her foot, enticing her
older siblings to play.
Things appear to be good for elephants at the Houston Zoo
now, but keepers have, in the past, had their share of issues
with the enormous animals.
Between 2000 and 2008, three young elephants died of EEHV
(elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus), a herpes virus
afflicting the animals across the globe. Elephants with EEHV
become lethargic and lose their appetite. Their head starts to
swell and they become lame.
The disease is a problem for young Asian elephants both in
captivity and in the wild. It can be treated, but it has an 85
percent mortality rate, according to Ethos Veterinary Health,
which provides specialty and emergency care for animals in 14
locations across the country.
Houston Zoo vets have been working with Paul Ling, associate
professor of virology and microbiology at Baylor College of
Medicine, since 2009 to study this disease. The protocol they’ve
developed to diagnose, monitor, and treat the disease is used
all over the world.
Houston Zoo officials could have started an Asian elephant
conservation project in India. They could made inroads in
Thailand. They could have saved the elephants in Laos. Instead,
they picked Borneo, an island near Malaysia where about 1,500
Asian elephants roamed.
The zoo honed its Asian elephant effort in on Borneo about a
decade ago, Riger said, because they only have about $100,000
each year to play with, money raised through ticket sales and
special events at the zoo. By focusing on one region, they can
really effect change, he added.
The 287,000 square-mile island of Borneo made sense because
the zoo already had contacts there, through Orangutan and
carnivore conservation efforts that began in 2004. The zoo tries
to support one conservation program per animal species on
And the Asian elephant is in desperate need of help. At the
start of the 20th century, about 100,000 Asian elephants roamed
the wild. Today, that number has decreased by at least 50
percent and it continues to decline, according to the World
Like their larger counterparts the African elephant, Asian
elephants have been hunted for centuries for their tusks, which
are used for ivory carving and jewelry making. But now, one of
the biggest threats to Asian elephants is loss of habitat caused
by population growth and increased use of their land for
Asian elephants are migratory and follow the same
land-to-water routes for decades. But as Borneo’s population has
increased — the most recent count was about 18 million people —
the elephants’ routes have increasingly been interrupted by
fences, plantations, or homes, often resulting in the
destruction of crops and personal goods. Islanders shoot or
poison the elephants, Riger said.
But by teaming up with conservation partners on the ground in
Borneo, such as Hutan, a conservation organization, he added,
the zoo has been able to turn around that trend.
"When you are a local villager and you see your crop
completely destroyed overnight, you will not be inspired to save
the elephants," Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director for
Malaysia-based Hutan, said in a statement.
"Elephants need forests to survive, and people need to
convert the forest into other types of land uses, such as
agriculture, to survive, hence the conflict," he said. "If we
can’t make peace there, extinction is inevitable."
There is now a hotline landowners can call when an elephant
herd stampedes into places it shouldn’t. And Houston Zoo
personnel are developing plans to help island residents
understand where to put electric fences, both to keep elephants
out of their crops and to help direct the elephants onto
different migratory paths.
For the most part, Riger said Borneo residents are open to
these changes. They’ve been living alongside these elephants for
centuries, he added, but human-elephant conflicts have just
recently become a problem.
"It’s not that people are against having elephants," Riger
said. "But elephants that are taking up plantation crops are the
ones causing problems."