Tonka, Beloved 15,000-Pound Elephant, Dies at Zoo Knoxville

Tonka, the 46-year-old male African elephant and largest in the US, died at Zoo Knoxville on May 8 due to chronic health conditions and acute leg swelling. He was euthanized and will be remembered as an iconic ambassador and beloved figure among visitors and zookeepers.

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Tonka, Beloved 15,000-Pound Elephant, Dies at Zoo Knoxville

Tonka, Beloved 15,000-Pound Elephant, Dies at Zoo Knoxville

Tonka, a 46-year-old male African elephant and thelargest in the United States, died on May 8 at Zoo Knoxville after being euthanized due to chronic health conditions and acute leg swelling. Weighing 15,000 pounds, Tonka lived at the zoo for 43 years and was thelast remaining elephantthere, leaving behind a legacy as an iconic ambassador and beloved figure among visitors and zookeepers.

Why this matters: The passing of Tonka, an iconic and beloved elephant, highlights the importance of conservation efforts and the need to protect these majestic creatures and their habitats. As the largest land animals on the planet, African elephants play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem balance, and their decline could have far-reaching consequences for the environment.

Tributes to Tonka poured in on social media after Zoo Knoxville announced his passing on May 9. Tina Rolen, a Zoo Knoxville spokesperson, said the zoo was "awed and humbled" by the outpouring of sympathy from the community. "In perhaps what is the most powerful remembrance possible, his memory will live on with the generations of Knoxvillians who are sharing their stories of the ways he touched them," Rolen said.

Tonka was cared for by a team from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. Experts performed a necropsy to help better understand and advance the care of elephants. Some of Tonka's remains have been interred on Zoo Knoxville grounds, while some bone and tissue were sent to the veterinary college for post-mortem pathology and study.

The Stokely African Elephant Preserve at Zoo Knoxville will now become the home of a new herd of Southern white rhinoceroses, with some modifications. The rhinos will join Dolly, the white African rhino already at the zoo. African elephants are the largest land animals on the planet and live longer than most other land animals. They are highly intelligent, social creatures, but in the wild, they face threats from habitat loss and poaching.

In the days before his death, Tonka's health rapidly declined, and his care team made the decision to transition him to hospice care. "It was our responsibility to ensure he left this world with grace and dignity, which is why he was humanely euthanized in a quiet barn with his care team by his side," Rolen said. Tonka's veterinary team had been managing chronic conditions common in older elephants, but he suddenly developed acute pain and swelling in his front leg, which was treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and pain medication.

The initial plan had been to move Tonka to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, but his health declined before his barn was completed at the sanctuary in Hohenwald. Tonka's passing marks the end of an era at Zoo Knoxville, where he touched the lives of countless visitors and staff members over his 43 years as a resident. His legacy as an ambassador for his species and a beloved member of the Knoxville community will endure for generations to come.