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San Diego Zoo Global Shifts Conservation Focus

Senior keeper Mindy Albright watches the herd of African Elephants living at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Aug. 28, 2020.
Erik Anderson
Senior keeper Mindy Albright watches the herd of African Elephants living at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Aug. 28, 2020.

San Diego Zoo Global — the nonprofit that operates all zoo parks and organization — is shifting the focus of its conservation efforts to take a more holistic approach to help threatened species.

The concept is playing out at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where on a recent morning, the park’s herd of nine African elephants sought out shade ahead of the midday heat.

San Diego Zoo Global Shifts Conservation Focus
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

“We’ve got Zuli lying down in a big soft pile of dirt,” said Mindy Albright. Zuli is the newest member of the herd, who was trying to relax.


“He’s had his morning breakfast,” Albright said. “He just had some milk from his mom. And now its nap time, just like we would like to do right about now.”

And then 2-year-old Mkhaya lumbered over and actually plopped down on top of Zuli.

The rest of the herd is much more gentle as they cluster around the youngsters in a small spot of shade.

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VIDEO: San Diego Zoo Global Shifts Conservation Focus

“They’re touching each other,” Albright said of the large social animals. “Their trunks are impacting the ground. They’re very sensitive with their skin, even though it’s thick and their feet, so they‘re feeling where they’re putting their body so they don’t step on Zuli.”


The pachyderms eventually left the area and moved to an adjacent compound. There, Safari Park visitors can get a closer look at these giant mammals as they find and devour the treats keepers leave for them.

And while they may not be aware of it, they are also helping elephants half a world away.

That is because, for more than a year, Albright and her team have collected milk from the herd’s two lactating moms.

The large animals let the keepers massage their teats until a sample can be taken. That milk is then sent to a UC San Diego lab to be analyzed.

“Just like for humans, when you first give birth the milk has a very specific make-up or composition about it,” Albright said. “And then as the calf grows that milk formula is going to change.”

Knowing the exact kind of milk to give an orphaned elephant calf, can be the difference between life and death at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya.

Workers there mix formulas for orphaned calves, and they need the right blend of ingredients if they hope to rescue the orphans.

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“They get a sick or injured animal and sometimes they don’t know how old it is,” Albright said. ”Because it could be malnourished, weak. Maybe not demonstrating some of the developmental milestones that would give you an indication of age. It’s really critical that they know around what age that calf is so that they can determine what the milk formula is that they’re making.”

The number of elephants in the wild is dwindling and research in San Diego could reverse that trend.

“Coexisting with wildlife helps the wildlife and it also helps the community,” said Nadine Lamberski, the Zoo’s new chief conservation officer.

The research on elephant milk in San Diego will have an immediate, real-world impact at Reteti.

“This is the first community-run elephant sanctuary in all of Africa,” Lamberski said. “This is a facility that is completely staffed by folks that live in the community and they have lived amongst elephants their entire life. But that relationship hasn’t always been a positive one.”

Conservation practices allow the community to embrace the wildlife in their region instead of fighting against it. Culturing that ethos will in turn help create economic opportunities for the nearby community.

“We’re really trying to connect that work of saving species to increasing biodiversity which will really help our planet as a whole down the road,” Lamberski said.

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The Zoo’s pivot is not an about-face.

Research to protect endangered species will continue, but as the organization moves forward the focus will be more holistic.

“Our goal is to take the care that we practice every day protecting and maintaining wildlife and bring that to the field,” said Paul Baribault, Zoo president and CEO. “To make sure that we’re helping communities care for wildlife out in the wild.”

The transition is not expected to be easy and there are unknowns as the San Diego Zoo decides where to put its resources.

“How should we work with partners,” Baribault said. “How do we collaborate with communities on the ground, other NGO’s (non-government organizations) and it’s such an incredibly comprehensive approach that I looked at and said that is how we needed to show up around the world, across all of our work including here in San Diego in our own back yard.”

Baribault wants the overall approach to the Zoo’s conservation initiatives to consider more than just the threatened species.

He wants projects to also integrate the Zoo’s animal care expertise with consideration of communities and habitats where those animals live.

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