National Zoo’s new elephants on 2,400-mile truck journey from Canada


Kamala, Swarna and Maharani lined up within their enclosure at the Calgary Zoo. These three female elephants are enroute to their new home at the National Zoo. (Bill Quayle/Calgary Zoo)

The National Zoo’s three new elephants have left Canada on a marathon, cross-country journey and are due in their new home in Washington within the next few days, the zoo said Wednesday.

They left the Calgary Zoo in Alberta on Tuesday, National Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said.

The elephants are traveling aboard two flatbed trucks, with two RVs for keepers and veterinarians, on a trip that covers about 2,400 miles and is expected to take several days.

“For the safety and well-being of the elephants, and the team that are traveling with the elephants, we’re not divulging any information about the voyage,” Baker-Masson said.

The zoo announced in August that it was getting the three elephants, boosting the size of its herd from four to seven and providing a laboratory for the study of elephant life and society.

The three females are coming from Calgary almost exactly a year after Bozie, another female, was shipped to Washington from the zoo in Baton Rouge.

The Calgary Zoo announced in 2012 that it was closing its elephant exhibit because of its cold climate, its inability to expand and its desire to give its elephants the benefits of living in larger herds.

In June, the Calgary Zoo, part of which sits on an island in the Bow River, was devastated by flooding. Two hippos almost escaped. The elephants stood in two feet of water, and the zoo suffered $50 million in damage.

The decision to relocate its elephants had been made before the flood, officials have said.

The newest arrivals are Kamala, 39, Swarna, 39, and Maharani, 23, Kamala’s daughter.

“The girls” were coaxed into three traveling containers Tuesday afternoon, said Calgary Zoo spokeswoman Trish Exton-Parder.

Each container was then lifted with a construction crane onto one of the trucks for the journey. Two containers were carried on one truck.

Police escorted the convoy out of town.

The Canadians will join the National Zoo’s other females, Bozie, 38, Ambika, 66 — the second oldest Asian elephant in the country — and Shanthi, 39. The zoo also has a male, Kandula, 12.

The Calgary Zoo said last year that it will retain ownership of its elephants “for a period of time to ensure that their long-term needs continue to be met.”

But National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said the transfer is likely to later become permanent. “Calgary has no intention of taking them back,” he said last year.

David Rubenstein, the local philanthropist who has been a major National Zoo benefactor and recently helped pay for the Washington Monument earthquake repair, is providing $2 million for the transfer, officials said.

That will pay for, among other things: transportation, keepers’ travel, veterinary assessment and upgrades to the facility to accommodate the new tenants.

The arrival of the new elephants is the latest step in the National Zoo’s push to become a state-of-the-art center for elephant research and home to a large Asian elephant herd. Asian elephants are endangered.

“It is completely in line with our strategic and scientific plan to grow a long-term, stable, matriarchal herd,” Kelly said last year. “We’ll see some aspects of this herd at the National Zoo 100 years from now.”

In March 2013, the zoo opened a new elephant community center, which resembles a sunny, indoor elephant sandbox.

It was the second phase of the zoo’s $56 million Elephant Trails exhibit.

The first part, which included a 5,700-square-foot barn, two new yards, a pool and a quarter-mile walkway through woods, opened in 2010.

Maharani is of breeding age. In 2012, she delivered a stillborn premature calf. She has had two other pregnancies, but neither of the calves survived.

Kamala, the Calgary group’s matriarch, was born in 1975 in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park. Orphaned at 6 months, she was found at the bottom of an abandoned well by park staff. Her name is Hindi for Lotus Flower. She was brought from the Pinnawala elephant orphanage in central Sri Lanka to Calgary in 1976.

Maharani was born in Calgary in 1990.

Swarna also came to the Calgary Zoo in 1976 from the Pinnawala orphanage.

All six female elephants will eventually be kept together. The male is kept separately.

Bozie, Shanthi, Swarna and Kamala were all once in the Pinnawala orphanage together, but zoo officials have said they did not know whether the animals would remember one another.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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