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Conservation Education

The AZA Standards for Elephant Care and Management states:

Every institution should institute programs to educate zoo visitors about elephants and elephant conservation issues.

As ambassadors for their wild relatives, elephants in the care of humans provide an opportunity to increase knowledge, change attitudes, make emotional connections and create beneficial behaviors in zoo visitors that can positively impact elephant conservation.  With over 143 million visitors to zoos and aquariums, it is the responsibility of institutions with elephants to engage visitors in their conservation issues and encourage positive behaviors that help protect elephants in the wild.

Elephants in AZA accredited zoos offer enormous educational experiences to visitors. In a 2005 national poll, 95% of U.S. adults agreed that seeing elephants in real life fosters a greater appreciation of these majestic animals and encourages people to learn more about them. In this same survey, 86% of respondents agreed that visiting zoos and aquariums encourages people to donate money or time to wildlife conservation.

Nothing takes the place of close-up and personal experiences with animals, especially elephants.  These experiences can truly change people’s lives.  Here are some comments that visitors have shared after experiences with elephants at zoos: 

One zoo veterinary intern stated: “I decided on a career path caring for animals as a direct result of a school program I participated in at my local zoo where an elephant chose me out of all my classmates to reach out and gently touch.  I knew at that moment I wanted a career working with animals.”

After a zoo interpretive program, a visitor said, “I was thrilled with seeing elephants, learning about their amazing social lives and discovering the enormous level of care the zoo provides for them.”  At that point, he sat down and wrote a check for $100 and gave it to the interpreter in support of the zoo’s elephant field conservation projects.

Whether it’s through an education program, a behind-the-scenes tour, or simply watching elephants displaying natural behaviors in their zoo habitat, these powerful experiences can create understanding and action in visitors.  Here are some conservation actions that benefit elephants and that everyone can take to help protect them in the wild:  

  • Learn as much as possible about elephants and share this information with friends;

  • Choose not to buy ivory, or other products that harm elephants;

  • Contribute to wildlife organizations that study elephants and protect their habitat;

  • Write letters that influence decision-makers about elephant conservation issues;

  • Buy lumber from sustainable sources to protect African and Asian forest habitat.

* For more ways to help elephants click here.

School programs

Although everyone who works with elephants has the opportunity to teach about them, education departments provide an organized structure for learning.  Formal education departments can develop programs that meet National Science Education Standards and that are appropriate for the age and learning abilities of the student.  In addition, education department educators understand the audience’s cognitive skills and needs, and are knowledgeable about the means of shaping positive visitor experiences.  Formal education classes are developed with curricula appropriate for the elephant facility, home-schooling, and the public education system.  Education departments work closely with the elephant manager, trainers and veterinary staff in order to develop a positive and well-informed message. 


The AZA Standards for Elephant Care and Management states:

Every institution should have up-to-date educational graphics and/or information about elephants on display to the public.

Communicating clear and appealing elephant information using graphic signs can involve and engage visitors.  Fun, interactive graphics offer new ways to learn about elephants and the conservation message of the facility.  Graphics and interactive devices can demonstrate how the elephant’s trunk works, illustrate the anatomy of the elephant’s foot, enrichment opportunities, display the tools used in management, and even demonstrate current scientific investigations such as ultrasound of a fetus and the real-time infrasonic vocalizations of the herd.

Image from Lee Richardson Zoo

The Elephant TAG/SSP Conservation Education Key Messages document identifies important areas to consider when engaging visitors about the natural history, behavior, elephant care and conservation of elephants.

Age Appropriate Topics

Whether developing programs or graphic signs, the table below from David Sobel’s work in “Beyond Ecophobia” is helpful to keep in mind when assigning elephant topics for particular age groups.  Sobel (Table 1) believes that we often leap to abstraction too quickly with children and share topics that can be depressing to them.  Sobel’s table has been customized (Table 2) using a few elephant examples.  This is meant to be a simple guide to assist educators in thinking about levels of information and appropriateness of topics based on Sobel’s work.  At all levels you can talk about elephant challenges in the wild; however, with younger children, you may not want to dwell on this topic or develop a whole program with this as your theme. 

Table 1: Sobel's Approach to Environmental Education

Age Group

Cognitive Development

Environmental Education should
focus on...

Age 4-7

home is central, what they see is real, are protective of the plants and animals they know

empathy with nature, feelings for creatures, connectedness to nature, use stories, songs, move like animals, celebrate, a sense of wonder, cultivate relationships with animals, anthropomorphisize, be the bird, pretend to fly, then learn about "your" bird

Age 8-11

awareness broadens to wider world, home is less important, interested in exploring larger landscape

exploring the home, school, neighborhood, community, region and beyond, create imaginary worlds, search for treasure, follow streams, take care of animals, gardening, to teach water cycle explore puddles, collect rainwater, make miniature landscapes, follow streams, make emotional connections. NO GLOBAL TRAGEDIES BEFORE 4th GRADE.

Age 12-15
social action

greater expansion and more abstract concepts, social interactions with peers more significant

social action, connectedness to society, opportunity to save the world, go downtown, manage school recycling, testify at hearings, school expeditions, social responsibility for oldest rites of passage, provide real responsibility with environmental projects



allow enough time for full immersion in nature

Table 2: Elephant Topics & Age Groups

Age 4-7

*  Elephant families
    - social structure
    - animals as individuals
    - names and relationships
*  How elephants grow
     - elephant babies
     - loosing teeth/tusks
     - play
*  Food — what elephants eat and drink and how much
*  Elephant baths -  they’re fun and cooling
*  Movement – trunk and walk like an elephant
*  Elephant sounds
*  Elephant homes – the savanna and the forest
*  Conservation Actions:
    - learn more about elephants by reading some great books
    - visit your local zoo and take a class

Age 8-11

*  Elephant habitats – savanna and forest habitats
    - elephant neighbors
    - keystone and flagship species
*  Elephant learning in the herd
*  Adaptations — from trunk to tail the elephant is designed
    to survive
*  Maps — geography of Asia and Africa
*  Mammoths and mastodons–extinct elephant relatives
*  Food chain
*  Conservation Actions:
    - develop school projects on elephants to share with
     your classmates
    - adopt an elephant at your local zoo
    - collect pennies to protect elephants and their habitats

Age 12-15

*  Threats to elephants
   - Ivory trade
   - Loss of habitat
   - Elephant hair jewelry
   - Crop raiding - injuring and even killing humans
*  Conservation — solutions
    - zoo breeding programs
    - chili peppers, bee hives and trenches as possible
      ways to redirect elephant movements
*  Population management
*  Elephant Research
    - reproduction
    - communication
    - habitat utilization
*  Ecology — population dynamics
*  Careers working with animals
*  Culture – art and religion
*  Conservation Actions:
    - purchase wildlife friendly products
    - volunteer for organizations that help elephants and
     other wildlife
    - fund organizations that protect and study elephants

Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society.


Professional Members
Elephant Information
Updated: November 22, 2011