- Shanthi, a 45-year-old female Asian elephant considered the world’s most studied elephant, was euthanized on June 26 at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., after decades of increasingly debilitating osteoarthritis.
- She was sent to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 1976 as an orphaned calf, a symbolic diplomatic gift from Colombo.
- During her time at the National Zoo, Shanthi gave birth to two calves, and was part of pioneering techniques of artificial insemination that are today practiced at zoos around the world.
- Since 1975, Sri Lanka has gifted 35 elephants to zoos in various countries — a practice that animal welfare groups say is inhumane for such large animals that evolved to roam over expansive tracts of land.
In 1976, a young Asian elephant named Shanthi was flown from Sri Lanka to the U.S. An orphaned calf, she was a gift from the children of the former to those of the latter. At an April 2, 1977, ceremony at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., she was symbolically handed over by Punitha Gunaratne, 8, the daughter of a Sri Lankan Embassy official, to Amy Carter, 9, the daughter of President Jimmy Carter.
On June 26 this year, after a lifetime spent contributing to bettering human understanding of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), one of the world’s most iconic species, Shanthi was euthanized due to her progressively debilitating health.
“After decades of managing and treating Shanthi’s osteoarthritis, animal care staff recently noted that her physical condition had irreversibly declined,” the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute said in a statement. “They elected to humanely euthanize her June 26. Shanthi was estimated to be around 45 years old.”
In her time at the zoo, Shanthi became perhaps the most studied elephant in the world, making “significant contributions to the conservation community’s knowledge about the biology, reproduction, diseases and ecology of this critically endangered species.”
“Generations of staff and visitors have come to know and love Shanthi and, by extension, Asian elephants,” Steven Monfort, the zoo director, said in the statement. “Her contributions to research and medicine have made an indelible mark on our efforts to save her wild counterparts from extinction, as well as improve the lives of her fellow animal ambassadors.”
Tony Barthel, curator of elephants at the National Zoo, told Mongabay that “Shanthi was very intelligent.” She liked to be challenged intellectually in training sessions and seemed to enjoy trying to figure out what the trainer was trying to teach her, he said. She was also musically inclined and enjoyed playing the harmonica, Barthel said.
A tender mother, she gave birth to two calves: Kumari, a female, in 1993, and Kandula, a male, in 2001. Kandula was born as the result of artificial insemination, a reproductive technology that Shanthi helped pioneer and that is now in use on elephants at zoos around the world.
Kumari died in 1995 of elephant endotheliotropic virus, while Kandula, now 19, lives at Oklahoma City Zoo.
Incurable joint pains
According to zoo officials, Shanthi was first diagnosed with chronic osteoarthritis in her carpi (wrists) when she was in her teens. The condition worsened as she aged, and with no cure for osteoarthritis, zoo officials focused on easing her discomfort and improving her overall quality of life.
In her final weeks, the pain and discomfort Shanthi experienced increased significantly, and with each step she took, she would wince and come to a halt.
“The decision to euthanize was made after a long process of objectively evaluating her welfare,” Barthel said. “It was evident that her quality of life had decreased to the point that euthanasia was the appropriate decision, to relieve this much-loved elephant of its unending pain. The decision to euthanize Shanthi was based solely on her welfare.”
After the euthanizing process was completed, zoo officials allowed Shanthi’s four herd mates, three of which are also Sri Lankan subspecies (E. m. maximus) of the Asian elephant to spend time with her body, as they would in the wild — part of what experts believe is the grieving process.
Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 6,000 Asian elephants. But human-elephant conflicts are on the rise as a growing human population expands into dwindling elephant habitats. These conflicts result in about 400 elephant deaths and more than 50 human deaths every year. A consequence of this is that many elephant calved are left orphaned, as in the case of Shanthi. Before she was sent to the U.S., Shanthi was cared for at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (PEO), newly established by the government in 1975. Today, the orphanage also serves as a breeding center, with more than 50 elephants born there.
The Sri Lankan government has given elephants from the orphanage to several countries, with each transfer subject to CITES regulations. According to the CITES Trade Database, Sri Lanka has given away 35 elephants since 1975, many of the transfers initiated by Sri Lanka’s Department of National Zoological Gardens.
Animal welfare groups have called for an end to the practice, saying it’s inhumane to sentence an elephant to a lifetime in a zoo, which, no matter how spacious, will never afford it the freedom of mobility it would have in the wild. One such attempt in 2016 to send a 6-year-old female elephant to Auckland Zoo in New Zealand was derailed by a legal challenge brought by protesters.
In May this year, Kaavan, a male elephant sent to Pakistan shortly after its birth in 1985, was ordered by a court to be released from Islamabad Zoo, where it had been kept in chains for decades. The court said wildlife officials in Pakistan should work with their counterparts in Sri Lanka to find a suitable sanctuary for Kaavan. The ruling came after a global campaign, spearheaded on social media by the U.S. singer and actress Cher, to free Kaavan.
Banner image of Shanthi swimming with her male calf, Kandula, at their pool, courtesy of the National Zoo.