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Zoos: Oregon Zoo Elephant Program Prepares for $30 Million Expansion

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As "Baby" Samudra tops 1, 100 pounds, zoo gears up for major renovation

Much like 9-month-old "Baby" Samudra, who tipped the scales at 1, 110 pounds this week, the Oregon Zoo’s plans for a major expansion of its Asian elephant exhibit are still in their infancy but growing up fast.

"The zoo’s elephant program has enjoyed remarkable success over the past year, " said Mike Keele, zoo deputy director. "Rose-Tu successfully gave birth to Samudra last August, and in November the community passed a $125 million zoo bond measure with close to 60 percent of the vote, even in this tough economy. Nearly a quarter of that amount — $30 million — goes toward expanding the current elephant exhibit and funding an off-site preserve."

The zoo’s plans call for increasing the size of the current elephant exhibit to six acres; building new barns and state-of-the-art indoor facilities; and acquiring an off-site facility with 200-plus acres of additional land for the elephants. These upgrades will improve living conditions for the zoo’s current herd, Keele said, and allow scientists to continue studying the sustainability of the species.

Keele, who serves as the Asian elephant Species Survival Plan coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, has already spent quite a bit of time on preliminary fact-finding missions: gathering ideas for the zoo’s new exhibit, researching best practices, drawing up "wish lists" and scouting possible locations for the off-site elephant preserve. In May, he visited the Pittsburgh Zoo’s International Conservation Center, a new off-site facility focusing on African elephant breeding and management programs. And earlier this year, he toured the 300-acre site of The National Elephant Center, set to open next year in Okeechobee, Fla.

"Our elephant team is constantly looking for new ways to engage these highly intelligent animals, " said Mike Keele, zoo deputy director and Asian elephant Species Survival Plan coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "With our plans to create a much larger on-site facility as well as a vast off-site preserve, we will have greater opportunities to further enrich the lives of these charismatic and highly intelligent animals."

Since the new facility has not been constructed, the zoo’s internationally recognized enrichment program, led by Dr. David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager, has been critically important in helping the elephants thrive by improving their social and problem-solving skills. Keepers say the herd has been completely energized by the addition of the elephant calf, Samudra, and his playful antics.

"The arrival of Sam has been a really exciting time for the herd, " said Bob Lee, senior elephant keeper. "He’s a lot like a human toddler, except he’s a thousand pounds. So he gets into a lot of mischief."

Zookeepers have continued the successful elephant exercise program, which helps keep the animals fit and healthy. This program was especially important to Rose-Tu, as she stayed physically fit during her pregnancy. The brisk walks and daily workouts with her trainers prepared Rose-Tu for the difficulties of labor and led to her successful birth of Samudra.

The zoo has also found ways to help elephants in the wild through its innovative Future for Wildlife program. The conservation program funds projects that help Asian and African elephants in the wild through grants. The zoo is funding three separate elephant conservation projects, primarily to protect native elephant habitats and mitigate the often-fatal human-elephant conflicts. These grants support elephants and keepers working as conservation response units in Sumatra, as well as community-based elephant conservation in Uganda (focusing on elephants, crops and people) and Cambodia (improving the livelihood for farmers).

The Oregon Zoo is recognized worldwide for its successful breeding program for endangered Asian elephants, which has spanned nearly five decades. More than 25 elephants have been born at the zoo, beginning with Packy in 1962. The birth of Samudra continues the legacy.

To learn more about the zoo’s elephant program and watch video of Samudra and the rest of the herd, visit  oregonzoo.org/VideoArchive/Elephants.htm.

See also:
Zoos: Nashville Zoo Attendance Soars
Twenty-four North American Zoos and Aquariums Earn AZA Accreditation

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