The death of Warren the elephant was shocking and heartbreaking for the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, but it doesn’t end the mission of the Swazi elephants.
Warren’s herd was imported from Swaziland, Africa, in March 2016 when its wildlife reserve threatened to cull the herd, desperate to free resources for endangered black rhinos during a drought. Six of the 17 elephants that moved to the U.S., including Warren, found refuge in Omaha, but their arrival meant more than just escaping a death sentence.
It meant that wild elephants with rare genes relative to those of other zoo elephants were being introduced to the population.
Wild elephants are a priority for breeding, and American zoos use a species survival plan, a sort of matchmaking service, to align animals for breeding.
Elephants are notoriously difficult to breed, said the zoo’s general curator, Dan Cassidy, so the highest priority is to simply produce babies. But there’s also a keen eye given to genetic diversity.
A population that’s diverse is better equipped to endure disease or other distress. The Swazi elephants offer that special genetic makeup.
Warren was one of only three males to leave Africa in the 2016 move — the two others went to Wichita, Kansas, and Dallas — and he was expected to breed in Omaha and potentially other zoos later in life.
Omaha, Wichita and Dallas are conducting a relatedness study that would have told keepers whether Warren was able to breed with the females in Omaha. He may not have bred here, but it’s highly likely that he would have passed along his DNA whether in Omaha or elsewhere.
If Warren was deemed too closely related to his bunkmates, he may have waited for the species survival plan to deliver another female to Omaha or, far more likely, Warren may have left for another zoo — that is, if Warren was capable of breeding to begin with.
“It’s fairly common in captive zoo elephants that they do have fertility issues,” Cassidy said. “The whole thing was a gamble, but it always is.”
Warren died on Thursday morning while under anesthesia during a procedure to mold a cracked tusk to create a protective cap. His loss is a setback for prospects for breeding. Nevertheless, the zoo will still attempt to pass on genes from the rest of his herd.
In June, the zoo added a second male elephant, Louie, from a zoo in Toledo, Ohio. Louie was matched with Omaha’s Swazi females by the species survival plan in part for his fertility, but also for his genes. Louie comes from a long line of captive elephants.
The zoo is trying to breed Louie with two of Omaha’s elephants this year, and possibly all five at some point. Warren, estimated to be 8 or 9 years old, hadn’t reached breeding age yet.
“We felt really good about bringing Louie here and having Warren here, because I always like to have a backup male in case something happens,” Cassidy said. “Unfortunately, it did.
“Now, basically, we don’t have a backup male. All our eggs are in one basket. We’re totally dependent on Louie to get our females bred.”
If that doesn’t work out, Cassidy said the zoo will have to seek another new male. Transporting an elephant is a daunting task that takes months of orchestration and training.
“The resources and time we put in to get Louie here was considerable,” he said. “We really were in such a good place by having one potential breeder and one backup, we were set for the next 20 years. So it is a big loss genetically from that standpoint.”
Although Warren won’t pass along his DNA, he still leaves a legacy, not only as a beloved elephant and an ambassador for his species. Warren trained to give blood for the relatedness study, and those samples will contribute to the scientific understanding of his species.