Kandula the elephant bade farewell to Washington on Tuesday, en route to a grieving zoo in Oklahoma, where his arrival comes after the death of a 4-year-old female elephant there three weeks ago.
The National Zoo’s prize male Asian elephant was shipped to the Oklahoma City Zoo so that he can breed with the female elephants there.
But he arrives just weeks after the sudden death on Oct. 1 of one of Oklahoma’s females, Malee, who apparently died of the elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus.
“It’s been a really difficult time,” an emotional Oklahoma zoo spokeswoman, Tara Henson, said Tuesday. “She was our firstborn at the zoo. . . . We have all been reeling.”
Asked whether Kandula might be sickened, Henson said, “No, he’s not in danger.”
National Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said experts at both zoos discussed the death and the move at length, deciding that it was safe for Kandula to go.
“They would not have accepted the elephant if they did not think he would be okay,” she said. “We wouldn’t have sent the elephant if we didn’t think he would be okay.”
Henson said African and Asian elephants have carried strains of the virus for as long as the species have been studied.
Brandie Smith, the National Zoo’s associate director for animal-care sciences, said Kandula and others in the zoo’s herd already carry the virus, and most elephants sickened by it are between the ages of 4 and 8.
Kandula, who is 13 and weighs 7,300 pounds, “is out of that danger zone,” she said.
The National Zoo is home to the National Elephant Herpesvirus Lab and is a center for study of the illness.
Malee showed faint signs of illness late Sept. 30, and she died 18 hours later, to the dismay of her keepers, Henson said. The zoo hosted a celebration of her life Sunday.
“Our whole community is devastated,” she said. “Malee was just beyond special.”
The National Zoo will retain ownership of Kandula, with the possibility that he might someday return. The zoo also could acquire another male elephant to breed with its females, but females can also become pregnant via artificial insemination, which is how Kandula was conceived.
He is leaving behind the place of his nativity, where he was born a 300-pound calf in 2001. And he is leaving his mother, Shanthi, and Bozie, the female from Louisiana, and the trio of elephants from Canada, who arrived last year. And he left the aging Ambika, about 67, the grand dame of the Smithsonian National Zoo’s elephant herd.
In Oklahoma, he will come under the guidance of a 47-year-old bull named Rex in a state-of-the-art facility with six other elephants in total.
The departure comes as the National Zoo has been trying to build its elephant herd, with the addition of four new elephants in the past two years.
But Kandula is too closely related to the zoo’s breeding-age female, Maharani, who is technically his aunt. Zoo officials have said that Kandula was being moved to a zoo with females to whom he is not genetically related.
“Oklahoma City has just opened up a big new elephant facility,” Smith said Tuesday. “They have a great facility. They have a great staff. They have female elephants there who are just awaiting his arrival.”
“It’s sad, especially in this moment when we’re watching him leave,” she added. “But we know he’s going to such a great zoo. . . . It makes it an easy decision.”
Veteran elephant curator Tony Barthel said in a recent interview that Kandula would join the Oklahoma elephants’ social system. “He can learn some from [the] older bull that’s there,” he said. “And he can be the heir apparent, if you will, for the herd.”
When Kandula is fully grown, he will weigh about 13,000 pounds, or as much as two pickup trucks.
Henson, the spokeswoman for the Oklahoma zoo, said that the zoo’s staff members “are thrilled. . . . He is such a handsome elephant.”
“We’re excited to welcome him to Oklahoma City and to assure the community there that our community here is going to greet him tremendously,” she said.
Elephant keepers coaxed Kandula into a huge shipping crate shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday, Smith said. The crate was loaded onto a small truck that was driven to the larger truck parked in the zoo’s complex, and it was placed onboard.
The truck left the zoo just before 1 p.m.
The 1,300-mile trip is expected to take about 20 hours with no overnight stops, the zoo said. Keepers from the zoo accompanied the truck in chase cars to feed and water the elephant along the journey and to help him adjust once he arrives.
The National Zoo has a new $56 million facility for elephants and has been working to become a center for research on the animals.
It began building its then-three elephant herd in 2013, with the importation of Bozie from Baton Rouge, La.
She was the first elephant in years to join Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula. Last year, the zoo added three more elephants — Kamala, Swarna and Maharani — from the zoo in Calgary, Alberta.
The National Zoo announced plans for Kandula’s departure in August. Since then, keepers had been training him to enter the travel crate, which was stationed outside the zoo’s elephant barn. Keepers also tried to simulate noises he might hear en route, by knocking against the crate.
Kandula is a descendant of elephants from Sri Lanka, where his mother was born. His name means strength and virtue in Sinhalese.
Smith said the departure of Kandula clears the way for the National Zoo to fine-tune its herd. “Now, actually, we’re starting discussions about what do we want to do next,” she said.
“This is kind of the final component of our larger elephant plan,” she added. “We wanted to increase the number of females in our herd” and send Kandula to a place “where he can create his own family.”
“After this, we’re going to sit down, and we’re going to talk about where we are now and what the best way forward is,” she also said. “Now is a good time for us to take that really big-picture look at the next five years, the next 10 years.”