“Ambika! I remember visiting her as a young girl!” an Elephant House patron exclaimed to keeper Kayleigh Sullivan. Kayleigh, smiling, said that she hears that frequently from longtime DC residents. Ambika is certainly a city treasure—at 71 she is the third oldest Asian elephant in North America. (The record for longevity of an Asian elephant in captivity is 86 years.) She has been a DC resident since the Kennedy administration!
Born around 1948 in the wild, she was captured in India’s Coorg Forest when she was about eight years old. After her capture, she worked as a logging elephant, carrying gigantic felled trees through the forest with her trunk for two years before she was gifted to the National Zoo.
It is unclear as to how Ambika was the lucky elephant chosen to be rescued from brutal logging work, but after a 47-day journey on the S.S. Steel Architect, she arrived in the United States on April 14, 1961 (a few months after the arrival of celebrity white tiger Mohini). She was presented as a gift from the children of India and the Maharaja of Mysore to the children of America. At the time of her arrival she was about nine years old, 9 1/2 feet tall, and 2,800 pounds.
Before settling into her new home, however, Ambika toured the United States through the Share Your Birthday Foundation of Philadelphia, making appearances at schools and playgrounds to promote international goodwill among children. After her tour, Ambika (meaning “gift from heaven”) was ceremoniously presented to the National Zoo on January 5, 1962. She settled in nicely with another young female Indian elephant named Shanti (not the current Shanthi). The zoo also housed a feisty female African elephant named Nancy and a male African forest elephant named Dzimbo.
When Ambika arrived in DC, it was believed that she was pregnant. She had been bred in India shortly before leaving the country, so local DC newspapers kept the locals apprised as electrocardiogram tests (to detect a fetal heartbeat) were administered by Georgetown University. In late 1962 the word started to spread—not pregnant. Zoo officials were bummed by the news. A birth would have been only the third elephant to be born in the U.S. in the last 44 years.
Ambika is a very well-mannered and friendly lady. She often sports a smile. She is the peacemaker of the herd, making sure that everyone gets along. Her keepers used to wade into the pool with her to give her baths. They used to ride on her back. They used to ride her in the pool! One keeper would even lie down on the ground in Ambika’s path to demonstrate the trust they have developed with her. Today, her keepers follow protected contact regulations, meaning a barrier separates them and the elephants at all times. She is also known for her fun sense of humor—often silently sneaking up on her keepers, earning her the nickname “Sneaky Biki.” Keeper Kayleigh notes that another quirk is she likes to flap her ears against your face when you’re working with her. “She gives us her silly smile as she does it.”
Ambika—with her distinctive pink trunk, her social nature, her particular habits, and her signature smile—is truly a gift. —Cindy Han, Zoogoer magazine
Ambika’s life at the National Zoo had been pretty stable, that is, until 1976 when her best friend Shanti passed away at the age of 32. Just a few weeks later, the year-old and current resident Shanthi arrived from Sri Lanka. And to this day, Ambika and Shanthi—The Golden Girls—can often be seen standing side by side in the elephant yard. Ambika has not had any of her own calves, but Shanthi gave birth to Kumari in 1993 (but succumbed to the deadly EEHV virus in 1995) and again in 2001 to male Kandula. Kandula lived with Ambika and Shanthi until his move to his current home at Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015. Ambika is quite cautious of change, but when the calves arrived she played the role of “auntie” with grace.
Ambika can indeed claim acting on her résumé: she became a star in the June 1982 when she and Shanthi appeared on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was a rainy day when Fred Rogers visited the zoo, but the filming seemed to go well until Rogers climbed on Ambika’s back. According to the zoo’s newsletter, The Torch, “As soon as Mr. Rogers was perched atop Ambika’s back, she decided she wanted a bath and lumbered eagerly towards the pool. While zookeepers headed her off, ‘little’ (4,000 pound) Shanthi’s curiosity was piqued by the cameraman and his fascinating equipment. As she set off to investigate, our fleet-of-foot staffers quickly foiled a farcical finale.” The episode aired on June 4, 1982. (Spoiler alert: He also feeds the giant pandas.)
Despite her advanced age, Ambika is a healthy girl, which is attributed in great part to the wonderful care she receives on a daily basis. As elephant curator Tony Barthel humorously describes Ambika, “I tend to think of [her] as that 100-year-old person who still drives around and maybe uses the internet.” Keepers say her bloodwork always looks great. She and Shanthi (who is 44 years old) receive daily treatments for arthritis (supplements as well as foot and joint treatments). Elephants go through six sets of teeth during their lifetime, and Ambika is on her last set, so dental care is important. To help her chew her hay, her care team chops it up for her. (Elephants in the wild would starve to death after losing that last set of teeth, which is one reason why elephants are able to live longer in captivity.) Her only major health scare came in 2007 when she demonstrated symptoms of abdominal discomfort. A blood clot the size of a basketball was detected in her uterus, but with immediate treatment she made a full recovery.
When talking to the keepers, it is clear that they truly adore Ambika. With her increasing age, she doesn’t follow commands as well as she used to and might present the wrong body part. Keeper Kayleigh says, “We let her get away with it, because it’s Beeks.” Kayleigh also mentioned that age has not hindered Ambika’s love for water. “She loves to swim, and she will not hesitate to go all the way under. And sometimes you’ll see her floating on her side—it must feel good to take pressure off those arthritic legs and feet.”
When asked to describe our 70-year-old Asian elephant Ambika, keepers called these monikers to mind: friend, mentor, comedian, research partner and colleague. —National Zoo Facebook page
With a complete renovation of the elephant space in 2013, the zoo was prepared to increase the size of their herd and reinstate their breeding program. Ambika’s circle of friends has more than doubled in size. Arrivals since 2013 include Bozie (from Baton Rouge Zoo), the “Calgary Zoo trio” of Kamala, Maharani, and Swarna, and most recently “Big Spike,” also from Calgary. (Maharani and Spike have a recommendation to breed from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, so we are all hoping for a baby in the next few years!)
A wonderful opportunity to meet Ambika and her friends is World Elephant Day on Monday, August 12. Listen to keepers talk about their daily routine with these amazing animals, attend special demonstrations, and learn how you can do your part to help save this endangered species.
Last year, Ambika’s birthday (the actual day of which is unknown) was celebrated on World Elephant Day, but according her care team, look for a special birthday celebration around the first of the year in 2020. Will she receive 20 cakes again? Stay tuned!
ID help: How do you spot 7,200-lb Ambika out of the herd of seven elephants? She has an extremely long trunk that is lighter pink in color at the end. She likes to tuck a piece of hay in the corner of her mouth, and she is often hanging out with the larger (9,000 lb.) Shanthi and Bozie, who has two prominent domes on the top of her head.
On March 28, 2020, I woke up to the sad news that Ambika was humanely euthanized at the age of 72. She will be dearly missed.
National Zoo press release: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/news/elderly-asian-elephant-ambika-dies-smithsonians-national-zoo
“Asian Elephant Is Not Pregnant, Zookeepers Find.” Washington Evening Star, January 15, 1963.
“‘Birthday’ Elephant Arrives at Zoo.” Washington Post, January 5, 1962: A2.
Casey, Phil. “Cleanup Time for Elephants.” Washington Post, July 16, 1968: B1.
Gabbett, Harry. “People-to-People Elephant Arrives from India in ‘Interesting’ Condition.” Washington Post, April 15, 1961: A1, C1.
Galloway, Marie. “Pachyderm Pals; at the Zoo, Ambika, Shanthi, Kandula and Marie Care for One Another.” Washington Post, February 25, 2007: B8.
“Gift Elephant from India Gets VIP Ceremony.” Washington Evening Star, January 5, 1962.
Gray, Steven. “Zoo Puts on do for Elephant’s 50th Birthday; Ambika’s Keepers Use Occasion to Draw Attention to Animals’ Plight in Asia.” Washington Post, June 21, 1998: B3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1998/06/21/zoo-puts-on-do-for-elephants-50th-birthday/9929ebd2-7aa9-4e49-a95e-9b782cde8b58/
Gustaitis, Rasa. “Elephant Pregnancy Test Flops.” Washington Post, January 19, 1963: C1.
Han, Cindy. “A Trunk Full of Memories.” Zoogoer magazine (July/August 2008). https://web.archive.org/web/20121228010958/http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/Zoogoer/2008/4/Ambika.cfm
Lawrence, Holly. “Aging in Place at the Zoo.” Next Avenue, June 6, 2018. https://www.nextavenue.org/aging-place-zoo/
“Meet the Elephants of the National Zoo” . Smithsonian Magazine, October 21, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvXXY1TJZRw&t=29s
“Mr. Rogers at the Zoo.” Smithsonian Institution Archives blog, June 18, 2013. https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/mr-rogers-zoo
Ruane, Michael E. “Her Recovery is Big News; A Blood Clot Ailed Ambika. Now Life Is Sweet, and So’s the Hay.” Washington Post, February 9, 2007: B3.
Ruane, Michael E. “They’re Really Living Large Now.” Washington Post, March 16, 2013: B1.
Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1961, p. 133. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1961smit
Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1962, p. 136. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1962smit
Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “Asian Elephant.” https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/asian-elephant
Sullivan, Kayleigh, and Paige Babel. “A Day in the Life of an Elephant Keeper.” Smithsonian’s National Zoo website, August 4, 2017. https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/news/day-life-elephant-keeper
Thomson, Peggy. Keepers and Creatures at the National Zoo. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
“Young Elephant Not Expecting.” Washington Post, December 23, 1962: A16.
“Zoo Plans for First Blessed Elephant Event.” Washington Evening Star, April 6, 1961.