11 August 2023
Night vision cameras at Whipsnade Zoo’s Centre for Elephant Care show 11-month-old Asian elephant Nang Phaya crawling over aunties Lucha and Karishma, enticing them to play as they try and get some shuteye.
The conservation zoo has released the fascinating footage ahead of World Elephant Day (Saturday 12 August), to offer a unique insight into the herd’s nocturnal habits and encourage support for their work protecting the endangered species.
Elephant keeper Stefan Groeneveld explained the team are using the cameras to monitor the multi-generational herd at night, so they can provide 24-hour care and learn more about changes to the family dynamic since the birth of Nang Phaya last year.
“Thanks to advancements in camera technology we’re able to learn so much more about these incredible animals. Last year our hidden cameras captured Donna giving birth to Nang Phaya, surrounded by the rest of the females in the herd, including her own mum Kaylee – who provided reassurance and support. Now we’re using the cameras to learn more about the herd’s sleep patterns, social structure and interactions after the sun sets.
“From this latest footage we can see that it’s still always playtime for Nang Phaya, who is not ready to grow up just yet!”
Stefan added that every new piece of knowledge gained helps the world class team provide the best care possible for the Asian elephant herd.
“During the day, we see first-hand that Phaya enjoys playing with the whole herd – their current favourite pastime is rolling in the mud, and she has quickly become an expert at it, covering herself in the cooling clay and trumpeting her joy.
“But from watching hours of night footage over the last year we’ve learnt that 41-year-old aunty, Lucha, has become a second mum to little Phaya, who can often be found curled up next to her and 24-year-old Karishma. This shows us what a tightknit herd we have at Whipsnade and how close Phaya’s relationship is with all of the females.
Stefan said it was especially encouraging to see Phaya playing at night. “Unlike lions, who can sleep for 22 hours a day, or our own babies, which can snooze for 14 hours a day, elephants only need around 4 hours of sleep.
“While Phaya may sleep a few more hours due to her age, it's great to see her engaging in sensory play at night like digging in the sand, which is great for her foot care, testing out her trunk skills pushing her toys around, or running around her spacious paddock.”
Stefan added that the footage the team gathers is vital not just for the herd’s care, but for the ZSL scientists and conservationists working with endangered Asian elephants in the wild. The herd contribute directly to conservation through this kind of vital research, which also includes dung sampling to support faecal DNA testing, sound monitoring to aid understanding of communication, and motion studies and thermal imaging to inform technology being developed to protect and conserve elephants in the wild.
“Sadly, elephants are one of the most persecuted species in the world, facing daily threats in the wild from poachers, conflict with the communities they live alongside, droughts, as well as habitat loss and degradation.
“Our expertise at Whipsnade Zoo also helps train wildlife health professionals: since 1994 we’ve been part of the Wildlife Health Bridge, in partnership with the Royal Veterinary College and others, providing Masters’ level training on elephant health, welfare, care, and medicine to over 700 wildlife health professionals from 67 countries. Many of these alumni now work with elephants in countries including Thailand, Myanmar and India where Asian elephant numbers continue to decline.”
Visit Whipsnade Zoo this World Elephant Day to learn more about Asian elephants and what can be done to protect them - every ticket supports ZSL’s vital science and conservation work around the globe.
ZSL's conservation work in Thailand
Human-wildlife conflict, illegal wildlife trade and habitat destruction are critical threats to wildlife in Thailand. That’s why we’ve been working on the ground and behind-the-scenes to protect species including Asian elephants, tigers and pangolins.