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The International Elephant Foundation, the Houston Zoo, & Some Dedicated Fifth Graders Committed to Elephant Conservation

The Houston Zoo is profoundly dedicated to the health and welfare of their collection animals, but they are also renowned for their education and outreach programs. I eagerly jumped on the shuttle over to the zoo while attending the last annual zoo conference which was hosted by the Zoo. I reserved a full day to tour the grounds...

The Houston Zoo is profoundly dedicated to the health and welfare of their collection animals, but they are also renowned for their education and outreach programs. I eagerly jumped on the shuttle over to the zoo while attending the last annual zoo conference which was hosted by the Zoo. I reserved a full day to tour the grounds at Hermann Park and to watch the teams of Houston Zoo animal keepers in action working the wildlife and the crowds.

Courtesy IEF

The Zoo’s staff administers world-class animal husbandry programs–I could see this both in front of the exhibits and behind-the-scenes. But the Houston Zoo animal keepers are clearly an exceptional and dynamic group of educators  as well. These passionate “animal folks” demonstrated just how they entertained, educated and inspired zoo patrons.

The keepers complement a very progressive education department at the Houston Zoo. The education and animal care departments work together to empower zoo visitors to be conscientious stewards of the environment and natural resources through very pro-active engagement on-site.  

I proudly observed my friend and colleague, Susan Shepard, coordinate and conduct an up-close, behavioral training presentation with an adult male lion.  The performance was sensational! She had a microphone on and was energizing the crowds as her fellow keepers provided enrichment for the cat–a truly captivating experience for all who were there. 

Big cats spend a lot of time being lazy and the excitement of a adult male lion responding to behavioral cues really grabbed the attention of the visitors. You need to capture their attention before you can educate them.  This mantra is something that one of our interns learned before coming to Alaska.

Erin Leighton served as an intern at the Houston Zoo, prior to stint at one other facility and before arriving here at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  Her acumen for husbandry and training is phenomenal, but her ability to relate to visitors is what makes her exceptional and an invaluable resource.  I attribute her acquired skill set to her experience at the Houston Zoo.  

Erin’s visits to the Houston Zoo as a child inspired her to pursue a career working with captive wildlife and helped her cultivate an interest in conserving species of concern.  Zoos do inspire children to make a difference and they certainly endear young people to wildlife. In many instances these educational institutions encourage young people to pursue careers working with and saving threatened and endangered species.

Two recent examples are Alex Rines and Vinnie Christiano. Alex and Vinnie are best friends at Lindbergh Elementary in Kenmore, New York. They are also budding elephant conservationists. One even has aspirations to be a zoo director. Regardless of the direction they eventually take in the field of conservation they are both excited about elephants and preserving them for future generations.

The two fifth graders have led an effort to raise $500 for elephant conservation. Through a matching funds program, the International Elephant Foundation (IEF) agreed to increase this contribution at least tenfold. Funds were pouring in as recent as yesterday. The final tally of $5,500 was announced Wednesday, June 8th at 2:15 EST, when the fifth graders  presented their donation via Skype to IEF board member Daryl Hoffman and his elephant staff of the Houston Zoo.

Courtesy IEF

In partnership with the IEF, the leading non-profit organization dedicated to funding elephant conservation and research programs around the world, Alex, Vinnie and their fellow students decided their contribution could do the most good by supporting research into Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV).  “We are so impressed with Alex and Vinnie,” said IEF Executive Director Deborah Olson. “Elephants need people to help them, and these boys deserve recognition for their efforts.”

Somewhere along the way these two youngsters were inspired by elephant ambassadors that they first observed at a zoo– perhaps their first visit to a local zoo. This is where the initial impact is made– the child-zoo animal interface. Susan, Erin and myself were first inspired by the ambassadors of imperiled species at our local zoos.  
And elephants make a huge impact when you meet them live and in person. Yes they are huge, but that are unbelievably charismatic.

I still think of these giant keystone herbivores as pachyderms—members of Pachydermata–an obsolete order of non-ruminant ungulates.   I have not however, worked directly with elephants and by that I mean trained them or developed a rapport with any particular individual. It seems however, that with or without such direct experience with these, perhaps the most charismatic of megavertebrates, every animal keeper is aware of the emotional intelligence elephants possess as are zoo visitors–young people included.

Elephant husbandry and training is so specialized that even as a general relief keeper (floater) back in the 1990’s, I was precluded from working with these animals primarily because of the type of behavioral training that these animals required and the limited amount of time that relief keepers had to spend with the individual animals.

These sentient beings are high maintenance and I reserve the utmost respect for them and their caretakers.  Elephant training is a specialty and relegated to an elite few—many of whom go on to become curators, general curators and even zoo directors. 

If you have noticed elephant care has progressed quite a bit in recent years with new state-of-the art facilities opening at zoos across the country and abroad. Elephant training has evolved to make the human-elephant interface safer for keepers and more efficacious for managing herds in captivity.  There is always room to improve, but efforts are made to optimize the care of these special species.

Unfortunately setbacks occur in zoo breeding and management programs and they may be particularly worrisome for species that are difficult to propagate like elephants.

Elephants are long lived, take a while to mature and subsequently take a while to produce offspring. Both African and Asian elephants are not reproducing at a pace fast enough to replace themselves in part because they do not reproduce particularly well in captivity. A bull and cow must not only be genetically suitable to reproduce, but they must be compatible breeders. 

Successful rearing of elephants is where Alex and Vinnie come in.  The fifth graders are interested in helping clinicians, researchers, curators and keepers combat a viral pathogen that is particularly pathogenic to young elephants and may be endemic in more wild elephant populations than we previously thought. These include animals that were imported years ago for captive breeding.

Much like viral strains of herpes that infect humans and other animals, the 90 or so species of  the order Herpesvirales may show periods of activity and remission, and hence it has been difficult to diagnose. Herpesviruses can be treated, but not cured.

The recognition of elephant herpesviruses which can be highly pathogenic for elephants and may cause a fatal haemorragic disease, is fairly recent. 

NGS stock footage

Here are some points of interest regarding research into EEHV provided by the International Elephant Foundation:

-EEHV infection can be a fatal disease of African and Asian elephants and has been found  in captive and wild Asian elephants.

-EEHV affects mainly young elephants (<10 years of age, peak between 1 and 3 years).

-39 known clinical cases in North America since 1977 with 29 deaths (27 in Asian  elephants).

-Diagnosis and status of EEHV in clinical cases is made by detecting herpesvirus DNA in EDTA whole blood and sometimes serum, using polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

-It is believed that early detection of EEHV and immediate intervention with supportive care and antiviral therapy are critical to the success of treating an elephant affected by

-Famciclovir and ganciclovir have been used for successful treatment in elephants.

-Recent evidence shows that there are asymptomatic carriers among North American Asian elephants.

-Serological tests have been developed to detect antibodies to EEHV1A in Asian elephants. At present about 10% of the Asian elephants tested in the US have given
consistently positive serological results; these animals are predominantly greater than 30 years old and were wild-born. The serological status of North American African
elephants has yet to be investigated.

-Studies suggest that it is likely that many wild-born elephants in the North American population were carrying EEHV1 strains upon importation.

-There is no evidence of shedding of virus in semen or transmission of EEHV through breeding, natural or artificial insemination, or through transport.

Multiple IEF donors including the Buffalo Zoological Gardens, Denver Zoological Gardens, San Antonio Zoological Gardens & Aquarium, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Dickerson Park Zoo, Dallas Zoo, Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, Elephant Managers Association, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey have been so impressed with Alex and Vinnie’s efforts, that each chose to match the money raised by Alex and Vinnie.  In addition, the Greenville Zoo and individual board members of IEF have each contributed $100 growing the original donation by over ten times.

As a non-profit organization dedicated to elephant welfare, IEF solicits donations to fund worthy conservation and research projects worldwide.  To learn more about IEF or to contribute to elephant conservation efforts, visit IEF’s website at  With minimal administrative costs, IEF is able to dedicate more than 90 percent of its budget directly toward elephant conservation programs worldwide.

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Meet the Author

Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: