Tyranza celebrated her 52nd birthday in July. An African elephant born in the wild in 1964, she was most likely an orphan. When Ringling Brothers determined that she didn’t have the right stuff to be a circus performer, she found herself in 1977 retired to the Memphis Zoo, where her days ever since have been considerably more predictable and pleasant.
Zookeeper Houston Winbigler admits to having a soft spot in his heart for this Memphis grande dame — after all, they’ve been together for nearly 30 years. “Ty” is still a beauty to him, in spite of her many wrinkles, her chubby bottom, and her big ears. She’s now the oldest elephant in North America.
The zookeeper knows where Tyranza most likes to get scratched (her tongue), and he knows how her mind works when she’s around the other elephants in the herd at the Memphis Zoo. Winbigler has seen Ty figure out how to get food out of the pool at her advanced age, without having to navigate the steps, by swirling the water with her trunk to create a vortex until melons float over to her. “Elephants are very observant, and they almost always retain what they experience,” he explains.
What really makes him melt, though, is when his very sensitive, 9,400-pound girlfriend purrs. She appreciates reassurance, especially when it involves change. As the herd matriarch, she was extra cautious when the rhinos moved into the next enclosure. It took her a while to go greet her new neighbors.
Ty and Winbigler will be spending less time together when he retires in the fall, but he still hopes he can visit with her once in a while. She and her colleagues are among nature’s most intelligent creatures, known for the lifelong bonds they establish with other members of their herds, but their survival is a matter of great concern.
Karen Pulfer Focht
The Memphis Zoo’s elephant matriarch “Tyranza,” or “Ty” for short, is the oldest African elephant in North America according to the Memphis Zoo. Ty turned 52 in 2016. Memphis zookeeper Houston Winbigler says Ty loves to have her tongue scratched. Winbigler greeted her when she arrived at the zoo 30 years ago. He is set to retire in the fall.
Wild populations in Africa are being decimated by poaching and wildlife trafficking, says Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This isn’t just an African problem. “Much of the ivory illegally harvested from these elephants ends up in the hands of American consumers, or passes through our ports on the way to Asia and other parts of the world,” Ashe says.
“The Memphis Zoo and other accredited zoos and aquariums across the nation play a key role in educating visitors about the problem and how their choices as consumers affect elephants and other imperiled wildlife,” he says.
Poachers are slaughtering elephants at the alarming rate of almost 100 per day — or more than 30,000 annually — for their tusks. Greed for ivory has led to a massive decrease in elephant populations throughout the world. Elephants for Africa, the international conservation organization, reports that 1.3 million elephants were alive in the 1970s; now there are only an estimated 400,000 left. As a result, loxodanta africana is now considered an endangered species.
In hopes of reducing those numbers, much stricter laws have been recently implemented to prohibit the sale of ivory. The only exceptions are preexisting ivory items with certified proof of age (usually, 1982 is the cutoff date). Despite these laws and other conservation measures, the United States is still considered one of the world’s largest consumers of illegal ivory.
Karen Pulfer Focht
World Elephant Day is August 12th. On the following day, Dr. Kate Evans, the founder and director of Africa for Elephants, will give a lecture at the Memphis Zoo, which will also host an Art for Elephants fundraiser on Saturday, August 13th. An assortment of animal art — including elephant footprints and trunk prints, as well as “human-created” pieces —will be up for auction until 2 p.m. that day. For more information, go to memphiszoo.org.
Evans is an Englishwoman who has worked with elephants in Botswana and South Africa for more than 20 years. She explains that as a young child she fell in love with these highly intelligent and social animals, and dreamed of working with them one day. Never letting go of that dream, she set up a long-term research project on elephants in northern Botswana and has devoted her life to conservation efforts in southern Africa.
Evans works with the largest remaining population of African elephants in Botswana. “Scientists have predicted that the African elephant could become locally extinct in some range states by 2020,” she explains. “Botswana is the silver lining of a very dark cloud. With the largest remaining population and a relatively low human population, elephants [there] are doing well.”
The Memphis Zoo has already raised over $15,000 for Elephants for Africa. The zoo has also contributed GPS units, motion-activated cameras, and other items to Evans’ orgranization. A large part of Elephants for Africa’s efforts is aimed towards resolving elephant/human conflicts in Africa, by helping farmers find gentler ways to keep the elephants from raiding their crops.
Amanda Hadicke, elephant manager at the Memphis Zoo, focuses her daily efforts on understanding and trying to encourage children to care about these animals, the largest living land mammals in the world.
“It’s a humbling experience to be in their presence,” she says. “Just their sheer size is awe-inspiring, as is the depth of their intellects. They have enormous brains, and have a huge capacity for remembering and learning. We are dealing with 7,000- to 9,000-pound animals that can exude power and gentleness, all at the same time.”
Hadicke is afraid that generations to come may never get to see live elephants. “Soon we could be talking about elephants, giraffes, and rhinos, like we talk about dinosaurs.
“We share this planet with every living creature; it is not just ours,” Hadicke continues, reflecting on what humans have done to so much of the wildlife on Earth. That is why she is so passionate about her conservation mission — to ensure that the elephants will be here for future generations to cherish.
“There is just something about elephants,” she adds. “They find a place in your heart, and they never go away.”
Karen Pulfer Focht