Ambika Dies at 72

Photo by Judith Beermann
Ambika in the 1980s
Ambika in the 1980s

Ambika, the oldest Asian elephant at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo was euthanized Friday. She was 72 and had been in ill health with complications from osteoarthritis.


When I won a National Zoo photography contest in the 1980's for this photo, my mother said, "nice camera.” Elephant footprints are as unique as people's faces. I recall seeing a newspaper photo many years later of her herd and recognized Ambika by her toes.


For the past 59 years, Ambika had been integral to the Zoo’s campaign to save Asian elephants from extinction. Female Asian elephants in human care typically live into their mid-40s.

“Ambika truly was a giant among our conservation community,” said Steven Monfort, John and Adrienne Mars Director, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “For the past five decades, Ambika served as both an ambassador and a pioneer for her species. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of what scientists know about Asian elephant biology, behavior, reproduction and ecology is thanks to Ambika’s participation in our conservation-research studies. Firsthand, she helped shape the collective knowledge of what elephants need to survive and thrive both in human care and the wild. Her extraordinary legacy and longevity are a testament to our team, whose professionalism and dedication to Ambika’s well-being and quality of life exemplifies the critical work our community does to save these animals from extinction.”

3 Comments For This Article


"For the past 59 years, Ambika had been integral to the Zoo’s campaign to save Asian elephants from extinction."

No -- the battle to save Asian elephants from extinction is happening in Asia, not in zoos. And elephants are losing as humans take over more and more of their habitat.

Judith Beermann

I agree with you and would like nothing more than to see all wildlife free and safe from what humans do to their habits around the world.

But zoos play an important role in educating the public. I've been passionate about animals since I was first introduced to them as a baby at the Bronx Zoo. Without the continued opportunity to observe their amazing natures up-close, I would never have even come to know Ambika and feel a personal loss at her death.


From the Zoo's webisite:
"Born in India around 1948, Ambika was captured in the Coorg forest when she was about 8 years old. She worked as a logging elephant until 1961, when she was given to the Zoo as a gift from the children of India."

Fifty nine years ago, and frankly for most of her life at the zoo, she was on show in a small, barred, metal cage and small outside pen with the main purpose of educating and amusing the public. It was only fairly recently that the zoo rationalized its decision to keep her and her fellow elephants by coming up with the flimsy "research and extinction prevention" justification. There are many Asian elephants in the wild or in captivity who can be studied. We have long past the point of justifying keeping large, intelligent, social, wide-ranging animals in such confinement.