Happy World Elephant Day ... well almost. This Monday, Aug. 12, is the second annual World Elephant Day and you are invited to join us as we show appreciation for our pachyderm pals.

Visit Lee Richardson Zoo's elephant exhibit from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to learn more about the importance of these magnificent animals, both in the wild and in zoos. You will have the opportunity to touch real elephant skin, stand on the same rubber floor the elephants have in their indoor area, make an elephant craft and try your skill at identifying the difference between real ivory and an eco-friendly substitute. For even more excitement, come at 11 a.m. to see the elephants show off their skills as the keepers lead them through a training demonstration, and at noon, watch as our large ladies receive some very special enrichment.

While World Elephant Day is an excellent excuse for a party, it is also an important educational opportunity. Most people know that elephants are the largest land animal in the world, but they are important for so many more reasons. African elephants, for example, are a keystone species in Savannah habitats. A keystone species is one whose presence is vital to the habitat in which it lives. African elephants fill this role by severely pruning or pulling young trees and bushes throughout their range.

If left unchecked, these plants would quickly grow into a forest which would block out the light to the grass below and limit the movement of large animals. Soon, large herbivores like antelope would leave the area looking for open spaces and the lions and other large carnivores would follow closely behind. What remains would be an entirely different ecosystem with fewer species and reduced overall environmental health. Elephants throughout the world are also vital seed dispersers which help propagate a wide variety of species.

Elephants face many threats including loss of habitat, human conflicts and poaching. It is difficult to say which of these causes the most problems as they are often interrelated. As elephant habitat is reduced due to agriculture, logging and other human expansion into former natural areas, it causes the animals to come into more frequent contact with the people who are now using the land elephants once roamed. More human contact means more human/elephant conflicts.

The reduction in habitat also creates a greater opportunity for poachers to access larger numbers of elephants. These poachers often kill as many elephants as they can solely for the tusks which may bring up to $15,000 each on the black market.

The solution to all of these problems is education. We can teach the people in elephant habitats how to successfully live with elephants in ways that will reduce conflicts and ensure that both people and elephants can use the land together. We can teach the people who live in areas where elephant ivory is a sought after commodity for medicine or decorative purposes about the alternative products that are available, and the importance of conserving elephant populations.

Equally importantly, we can teach each other about these amazing animals and the role they play in the world. We can teach each other about the many ways we can help conserve these animals, both locally and across the globe. The more people we reach with this message, the more impact we can make.

Start your journey by joining us in our celebration of elephants on Monday. We would love to see you at our event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., but you can also show your appreciation from the comfort of your own home. Visit the International Elephant Foundation at www.elephantconservation.org to learn more about how you can help ensure that your grandchildren will have the same opportunity to experience the world's largest land mammal that we have.