The AZA Elephant TAG/SSP

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan® (SSP) and African Elephant SSP were established in the early 1980s. In 2000, they became the AZA Elephant TAG/SSP to coordinate zoo management of these populations. The Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) mission is “to examine the sustainability and conservation needs of the entire taxa and to develop recommendations for population management and conservation based upon the needs of the species and AZA-accredited facilities. We serve as experts regarding the husbandry, veterinary care, conservation needs/challenges, research priorities, ethical considerations, and other issues applicable to their taxa.”

The largest land mammal, elephants are highly intelligent and charismatic: an iconic species in the wild that can be a lightning rod for controversy within our zoo community and outside.

The Elephant Taxon Advisory Group/SSP’s current and past members are dedicated professionals who have always been committed to providing the best care to elephants in AZA member facilities. As we look at the successes and challenges of both the SSPs and Elephant TAG/SSP over recent decades, it is important to note the influence of the management groups and the individuals who make up these groups. They have had a profound influence on the growth of our profession, on shaping the management and care of elephants focusing on safety, standards, accreditation, research, education, conservation, and sustainability.

[Related story: EEHV and the North American Advisory Group]

“In AZA’s commitment to elephant management, from the initial formation of the Asian elephant SSP to its evolution into the Elephant TAG, the one constant has been that the men and women who served were always committed to managing elephants to the highest standards. Though their experience, expertise, and beliefs varied, their dedication was demonstrated in the challenges met and advancements made. Though challenges still exist today, TAG members are up to the task of ensuring a future for elephants,” said Deborah Olson, executive director, International Elephant Foundation.

The Elephant TAG/SSP vision statement is “AZA is comprised of compassionate, caring experts committed to ensuring that elephants are a part of our future. Elephants in our care play an essential role in the survival of the species. AZA advocates on behalf of all elephants with a unified and consistent voice. Our conservation, education, and research programs help to enhance elephant populations and inspire public action. We care for and conserve elephants in a safe and effective manner through our expertise, our passion, our resources, and our global collaboration with others who share our vision.”

To strengthen the management, care, and safety of elephants, elephant standards evolved from simple quantitative standards to performance-based standards. These standards were first incorporated into the AZA accreditation standards as guidelines and recommendations compared to our current expanded performance-based standards. It is noteworthy that these were the first species specific standards added to the AZA accreditation standards. The process became a guide on how to create, interpret, and institute standards for specific species into accreditation.

[Related story: Conservation Connections and Elephant Wellbeing in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo]

The standards have been revised multiple times over the years as they are a living document and must progress with our understanding of elephants. Therefore, there are questions that we must continue to ask such as how do we continue to evolve and build on best practices? How do we find ways to be aspirational in husbandry, welfare, care, and exhibits? Will all this be accomplished using standards or a combination of formats?

Beginning in 2012, two processes were added as part of the accreditation’s standards to aid in their evaluation and to monitor the management, care, training and safety of the elephants and staff. The first was adding a specific and dedicated elephant inspector as part of each onsite accreditation team. This inspector is generally a current or past member of the Elephant TAG/SSP. The second process is the requirement that elephant holding facilities must submit an annual report. The initial review of the data each year is conducted by a three-to-four-member team of the Elephant TAG/SSP. They independently review all the reports and associated information before the meeting to discuss as a group. They prepare a report for the accreditation commission focusing on trends and any concerns.

[Related story: Elephants Being Elephants]

As a science-based organization, we can be proud of the 70 AZA zoos who participated in the IMLS supported project on Using Science to Understand Zoo Elephant Welfare. It was the first wide scale, in-depth evidence-based welfare-focused animal care and management study.

We are educating and linking our visitors with ongoing elephant conservation, inspiring them to care and become good stewards of our planet. We know we can collectively have an impact on conservation, and as part of the standards, we can be proud of the investments made in conservation. Over the last decade, our AZA facilities have contributed more than 30 million dollars to conservation and research projects for elephants.

Staff and team development is vitally important. The development of Principles of Elephant Management (PEM) created the basis for us all to have a common language, training, and knowledge base for our professional staff. We have seen the evolution of PEM I over the years, with more than 26 classes reaching nearly 1,000 students. PEM II was added in 2012, to provide a hands-on experience course which has been held at Houston Zoo in Houston, Texas, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Bay Lake, Fla., and the Indianapolis Zoo in Indianapolis, Ind. With 14 classes being held reaching more than 140 students.

two Asian elephants swimming at the Oregon Zoo

“From the early years of the elephant management in AZA zoos, the Elephant TAG/SSP evolved in many ways to manage elephants, speaking in one voice and developing a means to bring us all together with a common language and practices. I believe this elevated our elephant management profession which improved elephant care and safety,” said Amos D. Morris, Jr., executive director and the Milwaukee County Zoo in Milwaukee, Wis.

Over the last three decades, one of our biggest challenges has been population sustainability. We have made strides in this area with research investments by some facilities to develop assisted reproduction techniques used today. We have been able to delay the decline, but we are on the cusp of a real and steep drop in the population numbers of African and Asian elephants in North America.

[Related story: The Elephant Paradigm]

To change course, the AZA board of directors created the Elephant Strategic Task Force (ESTF). The ESF is made up of a cross section of members from the Elephant TAG/SSP, Animal Population Management Committee, AZA staff, and stakeholders. The ESF has a holistic approach, integrating sustainability, husbandry/welfare, ethics, and conservation into realistic strategies while building consensus with all the elephant stakeholders.

As we continue the work, it is clear that to build a sustainable population will require a paradigm shift in how we all work, cooperate, trust, and operate. This is not only the responsibility of the TAG/SSP, but all stakeholders. We know change can be difficult, but it is necessary. We must ask ourselves what more can we do, and how can we help? More importantly, are we willing to trust and cooperate when difficult decisions are necessary? The goal is to employ the full range of available solutions to change our current path and to establish sustainable populations for both species. This will not happen unless we are willing to change.

Elephant Tag Leadership

David Hagan, Indianapolis Zoo
TAG Chair and SSP Coordinator/African Elephant

Vernon Presley, Fresno Chaffee Zoo
TAG Vice Chair and SSP Vice Coordinator/African Elephant

Daryl Hoffman, Pittsburgh Zoo
TAG Vice Chair and SSP Vice Coordinator/Asian Elephant

Bob Lee, ABQ BioPark
SSP Coordinator/Asian Elephant

Lauren Ripple, Sedgwick County Zoo
TAG/SSP Secretary

ELEPHANT TAG Elected Steering Committee

Bryan Amaral, Smithsonian National Zoo

John Davis, Riverbanks Zoo

Nate Elgart, Zoo Atlanta

Rachel Emory, Oklahoma Zoo

Christina Gorsuch, Cincinnati Zoo

Adam Felts, Columbus Zoo

Stephen Lefave, Oregon Zoo

Dale Leeds, Denver Zoo

Nick Newby, White Oak Conservation Center

Amber Alink, ABQ BioPark

Behavior, Enrichment & Training

Maura Davis, Denver Zoo


Jennifer Wilson, Cleveland Metroparks

Field Conservation

Dr. Peter Leimgruber, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Debbie Olson, International Elephant Foundation


Dr. Jason Williams, Denver Zoo

Public Relations

Rob Vernon, AZA


Dr. Janine Brown, National Zoo

Dr. Dennis Schmitt, White Oak Conservation Center


Dr. Janine Brown, National Zoo

Small Population Management

John Andrews, AZA PMC


Kay Backues, Tulsa Zoo

Photos Credit: © Oregon Zoo

The AZA Elephant TAG/SSP

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