Kandula, the National Zoo's "baby" Asian elephant, tipped the scales at 980 pounds yesterday and already knows 20 behavioral skills that can come in handy at bath time.
The feisty male pachyderm will have his first birthday this month, an event that will be marked with great fanfare Nov. 23. The elephant calf, one of the zoo's most popular attractions, has started participating in outdoor demonstrations, weather permitting, and continues to delight keepers and visitors with his antics.
Kandula's daily bath in the Elephant House draws a loyal crowd. Yesterday, during the 10 a.m. ritual, he frolicked with the keepers, knelt down as they soaped his thick skin, and lifted one foot at a time for their inspection.
His mother, Shanthi, watched from the doorway.
"He's learned 20 different commands. He loves to learn," said Marie Galloway, the zoo's elephant manager. "He's a little sponge. He picks it up as quickly as we give it to him."
Until Kandula's birth Nov. 25, 2001, Galloway's elephant experience had been confined to females. Now she has had ample time to study the behavior of this male -- and to reach some conclusions.
"Males are competitive, and females are cooperative," Galloway said. "Males constantly compete for their ability to propagate the species, and you can see it right away with him."
Bringing in new visitors to see him, she said, immediately prompts displays of dominance. He "will challenge them, try to push them and make them move," Galloway said. He's also much more independent.
And that explains why Kandula's days with his mother and two female "roommates" are numbered. When he is about 5, he will be moved to new quarters now being planned to house, and breed, a bull male.
"He's going to ultimately be a real challenge," said Lucy H. Spelman, the zoo's director.
A new Elephant House and more outdoor space for Kandula and the other elephants are part of Spelman's $120 million master plan to overhaul and refurbish several exhibits so that the zoo's animals can be displayed in more natural settings.
A centerpiece of the reorganization is an "Asian Trail," which will feature a larger, more modern area for the elephants, a new "Bear Dig" for sloth bears, and bigger exhibits for the giant pandas and other animals native to Asia. Phase I of the project will get underway early next year when the Australian Pavilion is razed to make room for new construction. Phase II, including the expanded elephant facilities, is expected to be completed by late 2006 or early 2007, officials said.
There are roughly a half-million African elephants in the wild but only 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants, Spelman said, and elephants in captivity are not reproducing at a rate that will replace their population in zoos. Kandula's birth was the result of artificial insemination, only the fifth successful effort to artificially impregnate an elephant.
The zoo's long-range goal for its elephants, she said, is to create a normal, multi-generational herd of six to eight, with space for males to breed.
"We need to put the elephants in a setting where they can breed naturally and where we can also continue efforts to do assisted reproduction," Spelman said. "We need to do both, and to keep studying them, collecting basic data, much like we are doing with the giant pandas."
A key area of study is the herpes virus that has killed many young elephants, including Shanthi's first calf, Kumari, a female, who died suddenly in 1995 at 16 months. Zoo scientists can now treat the infection, but not always successfully. A 2 1/2-year-old male calf died this year of the virus at a zoo in Springfield, Mo.
"The herpes thing is always on our minds," Spelman said. "We don't yet know how they get it. We can't protect [Kandula] from it; we can only diagnose and treat it."
Unlike Kumari, who was frail from birth, Kandula "is the picture of health," zoo officials say. He has gained 655 pounds and has grown from 38 inches at the shoulder to nearly 50 1/2 inches. And he's rapidly learning the various commands and behaviors that will help keepers care for him.
"We're teaching him to allow us to examine every part of his body and not be stressed by it," Galloway said. For example, keepers lately have been working with Kandula so that he will allow them to take a blood sample, which they can use to watch for any early signs of the herpes virus.
Galloway is optimistic about the elephant's continued good health.
"This male was healthy and strong from the moment he was born," she said. "He didn't even hit the ground with his head. His head was up and looking around the minute he came out."
The zoo, which doesn't charge admission, will officially celebrate Kandula's birthday on Saturday, Nov. 23, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Keepers and volunteers will offer a variety of educational animal demonstrations, and there will be an arts-and-crafts area where children can draw Kandula and other elephants.