By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - Fewer zoos of the future may have elephants but those that do would have happier animals under a new policy requiring American zoos with two elephants to add space for a third in case one dies.
Starting in 2016, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will require room for three elephants if a zoo wants to retain the AZA's coveted accreditation.
"Elephants are social creatures, they require other elephants," said AZA spokesman Steve Feldman.
There are 20 or so two-elephant zoos in the United States, such as the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, where African elephants Cinda and Stephanie have been together for 40 years. Unless the zoo is expanded, they would have to move, possibly getting split up.
"They are like sisters, they came here when they were five feet tall and grew up together," said Mike Quick, curator of mammals at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
What would happen if one died?
"It would be traumatic," Quick said. "That's why it's important to have other elephants so you don't go through that experience."
Quick supports the AZA three-elephant standard, even though he is not sure how his zoo will deal with it four years from now. The cost of making room for three elephants would be about $1 million, Quick said, and then the zoo would need to find a third elephant.
About 70 of the 225 zoos accredited by the AZA have at least two elephants and none have only one elephant, Feldman said. But there are lone elephants at some of the 6,000 non-accredited, though licensed, wildlife exhibits in the country, he said.
The AZA rule requiring space for a third elephant will allow for a shifting population, he said.
"Some zoos will work to get more elephants and some may decide they will not have elephants in the future," Feldman said. The AZA wants to have a minimum of three elephants at every zoo through breeding programs and population transfers.
The Sedgwick County Zoo has a $16 million "dream plan" for a new elephant habitat and breeding program, but the money isn't there, Quick said. He said the zoo's board is looking at options to keep the elephants.
Stephanie and Cinda are among the most popular animals at the zoo, especially during their weekly Tuesday morning exercises, Quick said.
The Topeka Zoological Park in Kansas also has two elephants, females Tembo and Sunda. But the zoo expanded in 2007 to make room for up to four elephants, said zoo director Brendan Wiley.
The challenge for zoos such as Topeka's will be to find another elephant. That may come from one of the other two-elephant zoos giving up theirs, he said. Zoos have a tradition of accommodating each other, Wiley said.
"We very much try to work together," Wiley said. "When standards like this change, it's all about the animals."
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Daniel Trotta)