Zoo welcomes new Asian elephant


POWELL – This Canada Day, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is excited to announce a friendly new face hailing from our neighbor to the north. Johnson, a male Asian elephant, arrived early Friday evening from African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.

Johnson was accompanied by African Lion Safari’s Elephant Manager, who is staying a few days to help Johnson settle in, as well as staff from the Columbus Zoo, including two elephant care team members and a staff veterinarian. The care teams report that Johnson is eating well and exploring his surroundings, including the outdoor habitat, where guests have the opportunity to view him.

Johnson was born at African Lion Safari in 2001. At 11,500 pounds, Johnson’s care team at African Lion Safari describes him as laidback, confident, and gentle with other elephants. With his easygoing temperament, the Columbus Zoo team looks forward to Johnson being introduced and bonding with the female elephants in the herd — sisters Rudy and Sundara (Sunny), matriarch Phoebe — and serving as a role model for Phoebe’s young son, Frankie, who just turned 3 years old.

The opportunity for the elephants to all live together as a herd mirrors the social dynamics found in their native range, providing Johnson and his herdmates with the opportunity to develop these healthy relationships. In addition to experiencing important social dynamics, the elephants are provided with different choices to prioritize their needs and promote healthy behaviors. The Columbus Zoo’s spacious elephant habitats include outdoor swimming pools, an indoor shower activated by the elephants, outdoor mud wallows, indoor sand floors, trees and other structures for rubbing and back scratching, interactive feeding stations, and indoor-outdoor choice access for most of the year. As bull elephants also sometimes prefer alone time, Johnson will be provided with space for independence when he chooses. When guests visit, they will also notice that the former outdoor rhino habitat located adjacent to one of the outdoor elephant habitats is currently being modified to offer additional space for the elephants. This work is scheduled to be completed in October 2024.

Johnson’s move was recommended through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan® (SSP), a nationally-managed plan to help ensure the survival of this species by maintaining a growing, genetically diverse population in North American zoos. African Lion Safari, an accredited member of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), is a partner facility that also participates in the program.

Johnson’s move follows the recent departure of elephants, Connie, Hank, and Sabu, from the Columbus Zoo. Sabu returned to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden after a temporary stay during the construction of their Elephant Trek habitat. While in Columbus, it was also hoped that he would breed with the females in the herd, though it is too soon to confirm if this was successful. Hank and Connie’s plans were also the result of an SSP recommendation to move Hank to the Tulsa Zoo. It is common for male elephants to move between herds in their native ranges, and zoos collaborate and work to replicate this natural behavior. Because Connie is so closely bonded with Hank, who has been at the Columbus Zoo for 13 years, the elephant care leadership team felt strongly that it is in Connie and Hank’s best interest to keep them together.

Future plans for 2025 include receiving an additional SSP-recommended breeding bull, Raja, from the Saint Louis Zoo. Raja has been a well-loved member of the Saint Louis Zoo, where he has also sired calves. While the two bull elephants will be housed separately, having both of them at the Columbus Zoo will offer additional socialization opportunities for the females and help lead to a greater chance of success in producing offspring. All of these moves are part of a larger AZA Elephant Strategic Plan to ensure elephants thrive in professional care and are around for future generations, supporting the overall survival of the species.

“While it’s always challenging for our dedicated keepers to see the animals they care for move on, these decisions are made in the best interest of each individual animal and the future of their species. We are grateful for the collaboration and expertise of all the teams involved to ensure that the elephants arrived safely, and we remain in close contact to ensure the animals are thriving. We are pleased to report that all of them are doing very well, and we remain committed to their wellbeing and making a positive impact on the conservation of their amazing species,” said Adam Felts, Senior Curator and Director of Animal Wellbeing at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species,™ Asian elephants are listed as Endangered in their native range across southern and southeastern Asia and are in decline due to various factors including habitat loss/degradation and poaching. The International Elephant Foundation (IEF) estimates there are 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants remaining.

Johnson’s arrival is an important component in the Columbus Zoo’s deep commitment to working to save elephants in their native range and to contributing to a robust breeding program in North American zoos. The Columbus Zoo is a long-time supporter of several impactful Asian elephant organizations and programs such as the International Elephant Foundation. Many of these projects have focused on reducing human-elephant conflict and monitoring elephant populations in their native ranges. Additionally, Columbus Zoo staff leads AZA’s SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) Asian Elephant Program, an AZA initiative to leverage their large audiences and collective expertise to save animals from extinction.

Recently, the Columbus Zoo has also established the Center for Species Survival for Asian Elephant (CSS: Asian Elephant) in partnership with the Wildlife Trust of India and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission. Located in Assam, India, the Center is the world’s first CSS conservation hub exclusively dedicated to a single species and uniquely located within the heart of the species’ native range. Asian elephants face numerous threats across their 13 range countries. To counter these challenges, CSS: Asian Elephant partners are building on their global connections and collaborating to address the threats that the countries have identified as conservation priorities.

Submitted by the Columbus Zoo.

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