By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY – The second annual Asian Elephant Awareness Month campaign (AEAM), is underway hosted by the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The event is held to raise awareness of the plight of Asian elephants and to empower the public to help save the endangered species.
AEAM is a collaborative effort among AZA zoos and international elephant conservation partners, featuring community conservation events, learning opportunities and an engaging social media campaign, encouraging elephant enthusiasts to share their love for Asian elephants using #TONSoflove.
“Because African elephants are most commonly top-of-mind in conversations concerning elephant conservation, the unique challenges Asian elephants face often go unnoticed by the general public,” said Rebecca Snyder, OKC Zoo’s director of conservation and science.
“The ultimate goal of Asian Elephant Awareness Month is to engage with individuals and provide them with the tools they need to transform the conversation and educate others about the dire situation facing Asian elephants today,” Snyder added.
“By doing that, we can heighten awareness of their plight and present actionable ways for the public to get involved to ensure the species’ future.”
The #TONSofLove campaign is a social media event to encourage all wildlife fans to share their love of Asian elephants from the comfort of their own home. To add to the success of this month-long outreach effort, individuals are challenged to feature a visual signal in their el-fies (elephant selfies), holding their hands in the shape of a heart.
Fans are asked to include #TONSoflove, tag @okczoo and share why they love Asian elephants in their captions. All shared photos will be featured on the OKC Zoo’s Facebook page throughout the month.
On Sunday, August 9th the OKC Zoo will celebrate World Elephant Day, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the Zoo’s Sanctuary Asia elephant habitat.
Presented by Bob Moore Subaru, Zoo guests are invited to come together for Asian elephants and enjoy a scavenger safari. During the event, guests will learn interesting elephant factoids, which will help them complete the activity. They will then be entered to win an Asian Elephant Wild Encounter for two, which allows guests to go behind the scenes to see the elephants up-close and personal.
Prizes for completing the scavenger safari will include #TONSoflove temporary tattoos (while supplies last) and candy, made by companies observing sustainable palm oil practices.
To ensure the safety of guests throughout the event, activities are designed to incorporate social distancing.
This global event will bring attention to how individuals can help conserve and protect these endangered animals.
While visiting Sanctuary Asia’s elephant habitat, guests will have the opportunity to view the Zoo’s multi-generational herd of seven elephants – Asha, 25; Chandra, 24; Bamboo, 53; Kandula, 18; Rex, 51; Achara, 5; and Kairavi, 1.
While at the Zoo, guests are invited to take a personal el-fie (elephant selfie) to share on social media using #TONSoflive hashtag, at the Bob Moore Subaru photo booth, located in the Zoo’s entry plaza. All World Elephant Day events are free with Zoo admission.
Collectable conservation wristbands, featuring an elephant design, will be available to purchase for $2 at the Zoo’s Guest Services office and stroller building. Proceeds support the Zoo’s conservation initiatives through Round Up for Conservation.
While African elephants are classified vulnerable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Asian elephants are endangered, facing numerous challenges that threaten the species’ survival.
Asian elephant populations in the wild have fallen below 40,000.
The 13 nations that make up the natural habitat of Asian elephants contain the most dense human population on the planet. As a result, elephants’ room to roam has been reduced by 85 percent in 40 years. In addition, Asian elephants are more susceptible to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), a fast-moving virus with a 60 percent fatality rate.
Poaching for ivory is a major threat to all elephant species, but because only male Asian elephants have tusks, illegal hunting has resulted in a scarcity of males and a lack of genetic diversity in some wild populations.
The OKC Zoo is dedicated to educating the public about the plight of Asian elephants, and also about conserving their wildlife counterparts through global partnerships.
In addition to supporting the Northern Rangelands Trust since 2009, which protects elephants and other native species in Kenya, the Zoo partnered with the Rainforest Trust to purchase and preserve 13,000 acres of forest in central Sumatra and 18,000 acres of forest in Borneo, both of which are natural habitats for Asian elephants.
The Zoo has also supported a number of other elephant conservation projects, including the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Rakhine Yoma Elephant Range Project in Myanmar and International Elephant Foundation’s conservation efforts in Sumatra. These projects support “boots-on-the-ground” teams that work to protect forests, prevent poaching and habitat encroachment, as well as mitigate human-elephant conflict.
The Zoo is also an active participant in the Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP), developed by the AZA.
The AZA Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program brings experts together from around the world to implement strategic conservation activities, measure conservation progress, and build on established recovery plans, all in order to solve problems facing endangered species, including Asian elephants.
Between 2012 and 2016, 41 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums reported taking part in a variety of field conservation projects benefitting Asian elephants, including the mainland, Bornean, Sumatran, and Sri Lankan subspecies. During that time, the AZA community invested over $1.7 million in Asian elephant conservation, plus an additional $1.4 million to projects that focused on both African and Asian elephants, such as donations to the International Elephant Foundation.
Since 2010, the Zoo has contributed more than $400,000 to elephant-related conservation.
The Oklahoma City Zoo is open daily at 8 a.m. and advance tickets are required for all guests and ZOOfriends members. OKC Zoo regular admission is $12 for adults and $9 for children ages 3-11 and seniors ages 65 and over. Children two and under are admitted free.
Tickets can be purchased at www.okczoo.org/tickets and are limited each day to ensure adequate social distancing between guests.