Photos: Houston Zoo expands elephant habitat

HOUSTON — Elephants have packed their trunks and moved into their new, expanded McNair Asian Elephant Habitat, and now it’s ready for public debut. Opening Friday, the Houston Zoo’s newest habitat expansion doubles the entire elephant complex and immerses guests into the lives and culture of Asian elephants.

The two-year-long development and construction project includes a 7,000-square-foot barn custom-built to house the zoo’s bull elephants, and a brand-new expanded habitat which features a boardwalk with an unobstructed view of the elephants and their nearly 160,000-gallon pool.

The new area will mostly belong to the zoo’s bull elephants. Tucker (12), and Baylor (7) received access to the new pool and yard on Tuesday, and Thailand (age 51) is expected to take up residence in the coming weeks. Duncan (3) still resides with his mother Shanti and the three other females in the family habitat, which was expanded in 2011. Along with room to roam, the expansion features interactive elements like the giant pool and artificial trees with enriching feeding devices, all carefully designed to engage the animals physically and mentally.

“We’re confident that when guests visit the expanded McNair Asian Elephant Habitat they will understand our unwavering commitment to the well-being of elephants both in our care and around the world,” said Lee Ehmke, Houston Zoo CEO and president.

This expansion highlights the zoo’s global charge to save elephants in the wild. The Houston Zoo supports elephant protection efforts in Malaysian Borneo through partnerships with Kinabatangan Elephant Conservation Unit (ECU) and Danau Girang Field Centre. ECU works with local communities and elephants in Borneo to raise awareness of threats facing elephants, mitigate conflicts, and give farmers the tools and training they need to practice elephant-friendly agriculture. Danau Girang Field Centre is undertaking the first population biology study of the Bornean elephant. The Houston Zoo provides funding for graduate student scholarships, radio collars, and camera traps.

The Houston Zoo is also an integral part of finding a cure and vaccination for a life-threatening elephant virus, elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV). The zoo’s veterinarians and elephant care team established a research collaboration in 2009 with herpes virologist Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology, which recorded significant advancements in the study of EEHV.

Houstonians can make a difference for wildlife, too. In fact, every visit to the Houston Zoo helps save animals in the wild. A portion of each admission ticket and zoo membership goes toward protecting endangered species like the Asian elephant.