Raja | Credit JoEllen Toler, Saint Louis Zoo

Updated on March 19, 2024

By the Saint Louis Zoo

Since 1906, Asian elephants have called the Saint Louis Zoo home. It began with Miss Jim, the zoo’s first Asian elephant, who was acquired with the help of St. Louis citizens. Since then, the zoo has learned a lot about the species and continues to work to save the species from extinction with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and other organizations around the world.


Why are Asian elephants important?

Asian elephants, like other threatened species, are crucial to save. Elephants are not only beautiful animals, but they’re an important part of the ecosystem. One critical role of the Asian elephant is its amazing ability to find underground water. By digging water holes in dry seasons, they help provide water for other animals in their native habitat. Elephants are herbivores and spread the seeds of fruit trees by depositing them in their dung as they travel.

As the species disappear, zoos continue to care for these animals before they’re completely gone. The hard work and dedication of zoo staff and partners for the last several decades have led us to learn more about Asian elephants, how we can save them and teach zoo guests the importance of Asian elephants.


Asian elephant playing in the water near a waterfall in its exhibit at Saint Louis Zoo. The elephant's mouth is open and its trunk above its head.

Jade enjoys the waterfall! | Credit Tori Mattingly, Saint Louis Zoo


Protecting Asian elephants

With nearly 50,000 remaining in the wild, Asian elephants face extinction due to habitat loss, destruction, fragmentation, human-elephant conflict and poaching for their ivory, skin and meat. AZA-accredited zoos are saving this species through the Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program. SAFE looks to the expertise of zoo professionals within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums and leverages its massive audiences to save species. Several SAFE programs focus on threatened species, such as Asian elephants.

The goal of the SAFE Asian elephant program is to assist in Asian elephant conservation efforts in 13 range states. Program participants engage communities with elephants in human care and support the science of the treatment and management of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV), a viral infection that affects elephants in human care and in the wild. Participants in the Asian elephant SAFE program also help bring awareness to the species and educate others to help save them.


Worldwide Asian elephant conservation

The Saint Louis Zoo is an active partner in the Asian elephant SAFE program and has supported elephant field conservation since 2005. In 2019, the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Asian Elephant Conservation was created with one goal in mind: to keep Asian elephants in the world for future generations to come, both in zoos and in the wild.

The Center for Asian Elephant Conservation supports the welfare and conservation of Asian elephants in Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia, India and Laos. The Center for Asian Elephant Conservation also focuses on developing partnerships that work on Asian elephant management and recovery, conservation science and education as well as directly participating in field studies and contributing direct financial, technical and in-kind support.

The zoo partners with other AZA facilities to continue the fight against EEHV. There’s an in-house lab at the zoo’s veterinary hospital which serves as an incredible asset in protecting the elephants.


Two Asian elephants standing next to each other in their exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo. There are realistic cliffs in the back that act as natural exhibit walls.

Sri (left) and Maliha (right) | Credit Saint Louis Zoo


Asian elephants at the Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo cares for one of the largest herds of Asian elephants in zoos. The three-generation family has six female elephants: Pearl, Sri, Ellie, Maliha, Jade and Priya, and one male, Raja.

Pearl, 53, was the first female elephant to give birth at the zoo. She is the mother of bull elephant Raja and grandmother to Maliha, Jade and Priya. A good problem solver, she loves challenging puzzle feeders filled with special treats. Ellie, 53, is a doting mother of three, a grandmother and the tallest female. She has a calm demeanor and lives life by her own schedule. She enjoys pruning trees and chilling in one of the pools under the waterfall. Sri, 43, came to the zoo in 2002 from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. While she doesn’t have any babies of her own, she is a wonderful “auntie” to the youngest elephants in the herd.

Pearl and Ellie are the oldest elephants at the zoo and are considered geriatric. The elephant care team, along with the animal health and nutrition teams, provide a unified approach to animal care through many different outlets, including daily exercises focused on stretching, in-depth health checkups and specialized nail and dental care. The elephant care team also implements several preventative measures to ensure the older elephants’ comfort and safety, such as conditioning the soil to provide a softer walking surface for the animals.


A young elephant laying on the ground in some mud with two full-grown elephants standing behind her, facing to the right.

Priya (font) and Maliha (standing behind) | Credit Saint Louis Zoo


Raja was the first elephant born at the Saint Louis Zoo. The 31-year-old is the only male in the herd and has sired three daughters: Maliha (17), Jade (17) and Priya (10). In December 2023, it was announced that Raja would be leaving the Saint Louis Zoo to continue to grow the Asian elephant population and save the species from extinction. This move is recommended by the AZA Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan. This program works in cooperation with other institutions accredited by the AZA to manage the Asian elephant population in North America and maximize their health, well-being and genetic diversity.

Jade, Raja’s second daughter, is pregnant with her first calf and due to give birth in late 2024 or early 2025. Elephant pregnancies last about 22 months. The calf will be the first born at the Saint Louis Zoo through artificial insemination. The father is Jake, who was born at the African Lion Safari in Ontario, Canada, and currently lives at the Denver Zoo. This birth will begin the fourth generation of Asian elephants at the zoo.

The zoo has cared for Asian elephants for 107 years and will continue to work and save the species so future generations can experience elephants for themselves.


Asian elephant facts

  • Elephants, both Asian and African species, are the largest living land animals.
  • Asian elephants can grow up to seven to 12 feet tall and weigh between 6,600 and 11,000 pounds.
  • Elephants are social creatures. “Aunties” pitch in to help care for youngsters in the all-female herd.
  • The matriarch is usually the oldest and most experienced female in the herd. She coordinates the elephants’ movements in search of food and water.


Learn about another AZA-accredited zoo’s participation in the Asian elephant SAFE program with this spotlight on Cincinnati Zoo’s Asian elephant conservation efforts.

For more elephant facts, check out this story about the role of elephant grandparents

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