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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Ambika - elephant gifted by India euthanised in Smithsonian Zoo

James Smithson, MA, FRS (1765 - 1829) was an English chemist and mineralogist. He published numerous scientific papers for the Royal Society during the late 1700s as well as assisting in the development of calamine, which would eventually be renamed after him as "smithsonite".  Born in Paris, France as the illegitimate child of Hugh Percy, the 1st Duke of Northumberland, he was given the French name Jacques-Louis Macie. His birth date was not recorded and the exact location of his birth is unknown.  At the age of twenty-two, he adopted his father's surname of Smithson and travelled extensively throughout Europe, publishing papers about his findings.

Smithson never married and had no children; therefore, when he wrote his will, he left his estate to his nephew, or his nephew's family if his nephew died before Smithson. If his nephew were to die without heirs, however, Smithson's will stipulated that his estate be used "to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." In 1835, his nephew died and so could not claim to be the recipient of his estate; therefore, Smithson became the patron of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. despite having never visited the United States. He died in Genoa, Italy on 27 June 1829, aged 64. The Smithsonian Institution   simply,  the Smithsonian, is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government of the United States.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute began as the dream of William Temple Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian.  During a trip to the western United States in 1887, he was shocked and troubled by what he didn’t find—large herds of American bison. The species, which once roamed the American West by the millions, was reduced to a few hundred animals. The bison’s near extinction sparked Hornaday’s crusade to save it and other endangered species from disappearing completely. He became the first head of the Department of Living Animals at the Smithsonian later that year, and brought 15 North American species to live on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

.. .. .. this post is about  Ambika, a 72-year-old elephant which was gifted to the U.S. in 1961 on behalf of children of India, was “humanely euthanised” by veterinarians at a national zoo in Washington. Estimated to be the third oldest Asian elephant in the North American population, Ambika was euthanised at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Sad, Ambika, the beloved eldest member of the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Asian elephant herd, was euthanized yesterday, March 27, following a recent and irreversible decline in her health. The Zoo reports that Ambika’s age was estimated to be around 72 years, making her the third oldest Asian elephant in the North American population. She lived longer by almost three decades than other female Asian elephants under human care.  In a recent article by Michael E. Ruane in the Washington Post, describing the arduous and careful task of determining when an elephant’s advancing age and illnesses require euthanasia, the Zoo’s chief veterinarian Don Neiffer said: “when you get to the point when the animal can’t be made comfortable, can’t interact with its herdmates, can’t move around its enclosure, . . . honestly, we shouldn’t even be at that point. We should have made our call well before that.”

In a release, the Zoo reported that last week: “Keepers noticed that Ambika’s right-front leg, which bore the brunt of her weight, developed a curve that weakened her ability to stand. Though she had some good days and some bad days, staff grew concerned when she chose not to explore her habitat as much as she normally would or engage with her keepers or elephant companions, Shanthi and Bozie. In discussing Ambika’s overall quality of life, the elephant and veterinary team strongly considered Ambika’s gait, blood-work parameters, radiographs, progressions of her lesions and her tendency to occasionally isolate from Shanthi and Bozie. Given her extremely old age, decline, physically and socially, and poor long-term prognosis, they felt they had exhausted all treatment options and made the decision to humanely euthanize her.”

Steven Monfort, the Zoo’s director, announced the animal’s death- stating that it is not an exaggeration to say that much of what scientists know about Asian elephant biology, behavior, reproduction and ecology is thanks to Ambika’s participation in our conservation-research studies. Firsthand, she helped shape the collective knowledge of what elephants need to survive and thrive both in human care and the wild. Her extraordinary legacy and longevity are a testament to our team, whose professionalism and dedication to Ambika’s well-being and quality of life exemplifies the critical work our community does to save these animals from extinction.” Keepers, who often mourn their animals as friends and family, described Ambika as having a “sense of humor” especially at mealtimes. She was a “persnickety eater,” who would arrange her grains to her liking before eating.

Ambika was one of the most researched elephants in the world. Keepers trained her to voluntarily participate in daily husbandry care and medical procedures, allowing animal care staff to routinely monitor her health.  Ambika’s euthanasia took place in the Elephant Barn. The Zoo’s other elephants Shanthi and Bozie, who had long bonded with the elderly female, were not present for the procedure, but were offered time to be with their deceased herd mate. Scientists have long suggested that elephants undergo a grieving process that includes the exploring of the body as recognition of the death. “Elephants will commonly touch the temporal glands, ear canal, mouth and trunk tip. Often, they will make a rumble vocalization while inspecting the body,” said the Zoo’s release.

Born in India around 1948, and captured in the Coorg forest at about age 8, Ambika was used as a logging elephant until 1961. She came to the Zoo as a gift from the children of India.  Most notably, Ambika was the first elephant to receive the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) vaccine to prevent leiomyomas—fibroids in the uterus—which are a known cause of mortality in Asian elephants in human care. further adds that as  a public health precaution due to Covid-19, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is temporarily closed to the public. Upon reopening, visitors to the Elephant Trails habitat can view the Zoo’s male elephant, Spike, and five female elephants: Shanthi, Bozie, Kamala, Swarna and Maharani. Meantime, visitors to the Zoo’s website can watch them on the Elephant Cam.

Dakshayani, an elephant at the Chengalloor Mahadeva Temple, famous with the title ‘Gaja Muthassi’ died last year at Kerala, having lived the longest for 88 years.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
1st Apr 2020.

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