The Asian elephant is the second largest land living species (after the African elephant). Asian elephants differ from African elephants in several respects: smaller ears, they are tallest at the shoulders and head, and at the end of the trunk they have one "finger" instead of two. Unlike African elephants where tusks appear on both genders, only Asian elephant males have tusks. For thousands of years humans have used Asian elephants as work animals, especially in the timber industry. This tradition is still maintained in some areas. In earlier times they were also used as formidable weapons of warfare – for example the story of Elazar, who died heroically in battle under the body of a fallen elephant. Since some of the governments in Southeast Asia have restricted and prohibited deforestation in their territories, their has been a decreased need for domesticated elephants as beasts of burden. Many of them became "unemployed" and most of them have been utilized in the developing tourism industry.
Asian elephants are in a tenuous situation as a species. Their habitats have been drastically reduced and thus their living space which they have to share with humans. Those owned privately as working animals become a burden on their owners after "retirement". In Asia it is not possible to release these elephants into the wild because of the fragmented habitat available. Elephants migrate considerable distances in search of food, and cause significant damage to natural vegetation and agricultural areas, which has resulted in friction with local residents. Today some 40,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild and in captivity – these remaining elephants are threatened by destruction of their natural habitat.
Elephants in zoos have always been a big draw, but in the past zoos have not always succeeded in providing proper exercise and environmental enrichment. Today, great efforts are made to resolve these problems with research and professional knowledge being shared between zoos. Following pressure from various organizations, zoos have improved the living conditions of elephants and now place emphasis on social groups, enrichment and adequate living space.
Practices with elephants zoos:
Free contact - there is no separation between the keepers and the elephants. This method has major advantages for the elephants but because of the proximity of these large creatures, the risk to the keepers is substantial.
Protected contact – keepers always work with the elephants through a barrier. This means that the keepers are better protected, but limits the work that can be done with the elephants.
Non-contact - no contact between keepers and elephants. The method ensures maximum security for keepers and is inexpensive to implement, but affects the welfare of the elephants. Treatments and tests must be performed under general anesthesia, which endangers the elephants.
At the Jerusalem Zoo, we choose to work with the free contact method with regard to our three female elephants from Thailand - "Tamar", "Suzanne", and 'Michaela'. Our keepers were trained by specialist keepers in Thailand and we also have Thai “mahuts” on staff who are well-versed in elephant care.
We work with "Teddy" our male elephant using the protected contact method because working with bull elephants can, during certain periods, be problematic and complicated.
A group of trained elephants allows for maintenance of a high quality of life and preservation of the health of these special animals. The elephants have regular foot care as their feet are sensitive, and excursions around the Zoo to keep them fit. They are very intelligent animals and need lots of stimulation not to become bored. The training method used also allows for artificial insemination treatment for breeding , as it is normally difficult to keep bulls in captivity. In addition, this working method allows visitors to experience unique contact with these animals.
Gaby the elephant, son of the "Tamar" was born after artificial insemination in 2005. The artificial insemination process was complicated and expensive, and the Biblical Zoo team was assisted by European experts. After four attempts, the donated sperm flown in especially from England (from a bull in Whipsnade Zoo) took hold and, after 22 months of pregnancy, Gaby was born weighing about 100 kg. "Gabi" was transferred to Gaziantep Zoo in Turkey at the end of 2010.