Washington Zoo Celebrates Rare Elephant

Nov. 22, 2002 -- The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is preparing for a celebration. Kandula, the zoo's only male elephant will turn 1 year old on Monday.

Kandula's birthday is particularly special because he was just the fifth elephant to be conceived through artificial insemination. He has gained 600 pounds since his birth to weigh nearly 1,000 pounds, a typical weight for a 1-year-old male elephant.

"He's gone from infanthood to at least toddlerhood in one year," said Marie Galloway, the elephant manager at the National Zoo. "His trunk skills have increased tremendously, you might say he's developed his fine motor skills."

In addition to growing at a steady rate, Kandula has shown he is clearly intelligent. His keepers have trained him to respond to 20 different commands. Kandula knows how to open his mouth, stretch, and raise his trunk, among many other things, when asked by his trainers.

The frolicking pachyderm is attracting big crowds at the zoo. People of all ages come to see Kandula interact with his mother Shanthi.

"When he was walking and mother was walking beside him, her feet looked so much older and his looked like they had little slippers on," said Ruth Hanessian, a pet store owner visiting the zoo. "They were new feet versus old feet."

Visitors especially like to watch Kandula take his daily bath — he loves to roll around under the spray of the hose, and play with his giant-sized bath toys. The young elephant will nurse for at least another year but he is starting to eat hay, grain pellet, herbivore chow, apple-fiber biscuit, apples, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

Watch Out for the Future

Kandula lives with his mother for now but that will change. By the time he is 5 or 6 he will be an aggressive enough male that he will need to spend time separated from female elephants. The zoo plans to build a new facility for him and for a herd of females. The plan is to create a more natural environment and to facilitate breeding of these endangered Asian elephants. There are only an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild, compared to 500,000 African Elephants.

"We want to support and participate in elephant breeding," said Zoo Director Dr. Lucy Spelman, " because if we don't the estimate is that in 30 years we could have no Asian elephants left in captivity" [in U.S. zoos]. Spelman said, "The captive population of the Asian elephant is the fall back [for the endangered wild population], it's the safety net."

Meanwhile, Kandula's trainers monitor his health three times a day. They check for the a type of herpes virus that is deadly to young elephants. The same virus killed the first calf born to Shanti, Kandula's mother. The calf was just 16 months old when it died in 1995.

"We're very concerned about that," said Galloway, "but [Kandula] is very healthy, he is very strong, he is just so full of life that we have reason to be hopeful."

So on his first birthday, Kandula's future looks bright. Zoo officials expect him to weigh around 10,000 pounds by the time he is 30 years old, the age male elephants reach maturity. They can live 50 to 70 years.

The National Zoo will hold its birthday celebration for Kandula on Saturday.