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After two recent deaths, National Zoo gets two new Asian elephants

Nov. 7, 2022 Updated Mon., Nov. 7, 2022 at 8:12 p.m.

By Michael E. Ruane Washington Post

The ladies traveled 4,000 miles by truck and plane before they pulled up to 3001 Connecticut Ave. in northwest Washington, D.C., Sunday night, where the staff of the National Zoo waited to greet them.

They are Nhi Linh, 9, and her mother, Trong Nhi, 19. The two are Asian elephants and came from the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands, where they were born, to start new lives in America with a bull named Spike.

The zoo announced their arrival Monday morning, with staff saying earlier that they hoped the animals would transform the zoo’s stalled elephant breeding program, and might produce an elephant baby – or two – within a few years. The zoo hasn’t had an elephant calf in 21 years.

The arrival comes two years after the zoo had to euthanize two of its older female elephants, Ambika, 72, and Shanthi, 45, due to old age and infirmity.

The zoo has been unable to mate a younger female, Maharani, with Spike for the past four years. The two have bred often, but for unknown reasons Maharani has not become pregnant.

But here come the new females, who the zoo said could go on public view next month.

“They’re really nice girls,” said veteran elephant manager Marie Galloway, who recently traveled to Rotterdam to meet them. “It was terrific, because I got to know a little bit more about them. … We want to do everything we can to make their transition as easy as possible.”

“They’re very personable” and easy going, she said in a telephone interview last week. “They’re young, so they are curious and interested in things. They really seem to enjoy interacting with people.”

She added that they are closely bonded to each other, and the mother does not like to be separated from her daughter. The younger elephant, however, “would like a little more adventure and get away from mom a little bit,” she said.

Despite being raised in the Netherlands, they respond to English, which has been used in their training, Galloway said.

The objective is for Spike to breed with both newcomers. “He’s a really nice bull,” she said. “I think they’re going to like him a lot.”

Spike’s genes are important because he has not yet fathered any offspring. Zoos say diversifying gene pools by bringing in new animals is critical to the preservation of a species.

“It would be nice if both (females) had a couple of calves on the ground in a couple years,” she said. “The best enrichment we can give an elephant is more elephants.”

Elephants have a long gestation period – 20 1/2 to 22 months.

The acquisition “is part of the vision for (the zoo’s) Elephant Trails (exhibit) when it was renovated a decade ago, to have a multigenerational herd, and produce babies and have a normal herd of elephants like you would see if you were watching the Smithsonian channel,” said Bryan Amaral, senior zoo curator.

The elephants arrived shortly before 9 p.m. after a day-long journey that began when they left the Rotterdam Zoo by truck, bound for an airport 130 miles away in Liege, Belgium, the zoo said.

There, the animals were loaded aboard a jumbo jet, supplied with in-flight snacks and a zoo veterinarian, and made the eight-hour hop to John F. Kennedy airport in New York.

From there they journeyed by truck the 240 miles to the zoo in Washington. Trong Nhi weighs 8,000 pounds, the zoo said. Nhi Linh weighs 5,700 pounds.

“An energetic, dynamic duo,” zoo director Brandie Smith called them.

They were a gift from the Rotterdam Zoo, the National Zoo said. The Rotterdam Zoo has had success in its breeding program and Galloway said Nhi Linh and Trong Nhi were not getting along well with the others.

“They wanted to give these girls more space, and the opportunity to socialize with some other elephants, that they will hopefully get along with,” she said. “We do have the space for them.”

She said the National Zoo now has seven Asian elephants.

Officials said the new arrivals were moved into the elephant barn just before midnight and treated to a snack of apples. They will be quarantined for at least 30 days.

Then they will be introduced to the rest of the zoo’s elephant facility, Amaral, the curator, said. After that, they will be gradually introduced to the other elephants.

“We want them to be comfortable moving around the facility before they have to be comfortable moving around the facility with some new friends,” he said.

Spike will likely get to meet them first.

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