The Honolulu Zoo’s two elephants will move into prime real estate next year when their 37,000-square-foot grazing habitat is completed.
The zoo broke ground yesterday on the enclosure that will house the two female Indian elephants and provide space for a male, which the zoo is hoping to get in the next few years. The facility will replace the elephants’ existing 3,100-square-foot facility and form the backbone of a retooled Asian rain forest exhibit.
"They’ll have more room to kick up their heels," said zoo keeper Malia Davis, who has worked with the elephants for 19 years. "It’s a step in the right direction."
The final phase of construction on the habitat comes more than 12 years after the city first proposed improvements. The city completed construction two years ago on a holding area for the animals behind the enclosure with large cages and medical equipment.
Sidney Quintal, director of the city’s Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees the zoo, said the final phase of the elephant enclosure will cost $6.35 million and be completed within a year.
"It’s the culmination of a very long and difficult process," Quintal said.
The new facility was designed in consultation with zoo staff. In addition to added grazing room, it will have two 55,000-gallon pools, logs for the animals to play with and grass floors to protect the elephants’ feet.
Davis said the animals might be startled by their new environment at first but will become acclimated.
"I do think they’ll be frightened at first, but they’ll enjoy it," Davis said. "As long as they have each other … those two are so bonded."
The zoo’s two female elephants — Mari and Vaigai — arrived in Waikiki from India through the efforts of David Watumull — former consulate general of India in Honolulu — and his family. In 1982, Watumull invited former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to attend a ceremony honoring Mari’s arrival in Honolulu. Ten years later, Sheila Watumull — David’s wife and honorary consulate general to India — helped organize the trade of a giraffe, apes and other animals to an Indian zoo to get Vaigai.
With the habitat expansion, Sheila Watumull said she is helping the zoo look for two calves — a male and a female — to bring to the Waikiki facility from India.
Zoo keepers said they are already preparing to house a male, which they say tends to be more aggressive and aloof than females. The new enclosure will be split in half with separate grazing and housing areas for males and females.
Once the bull elephant matures, zoo keepers said they plan to mate the endangered animals to help with global conservation efforts.
"They’ll find a bull that’s mature to bring new blood into the community," said Ken Redman, former zoo director.
Redman said the elephant habitat is part of a long-term renewal plan for the zoo. In the past decade the zoo has replaced metal cages with softer habitats that resemble the natural environment. Animals have also been relocated to create region-specific displays, like the Asian tropical rain forest and African savanna.
"We have changed our exhibit facilities so much," Redman said, "but it takes time to replace the old habitats with the modern."