Diplomatic Pouch / August 28, 2008
By Larry Luxner
In Sri Lankan folklore, Kandula was the royal elephant who helped his master, King Dutugemunu, unite the island under one rule more than 2,000 years ago.
These days, visitors to Washington's National Zoo are enchanted by the modern-day Kandula — a 7,000-pound male elephant who has become one of the zoo's most beloved animals since his birth on Nov. 25, 2001.
Kandula's mother, 32-year-old Shanthi, was presented to the National Zoo in 1976 as a gift from the children of Sri Lanka. Both pachyderms, along with Ambika — who just celebrated her 60th birthday — looked on last Saturday morning as Jaliya Wickramasuriya made his first public appearance as ambassador of Sri Lanka.
"I am particularly pleased that both Shanthi and Kandula have become a symbol of strong friendship between the peoples of the United States and Sri Lanka," said Wickramasuriya. He noted the "concerted efforts being made by the Smithsonian Institution for conserving wildlife in Asia, with special emphasis on the elephant conservation projects carried out in Sri Lanka, in close collaboration with our government."
Several hundred people turned out for the breakfast reception, held in the Elephant House and co-sponsored by Friends of the National Zoo and the Sri Lankan Embassy. Zoo director John Berry addressed the crowd while Kandula, Shanthi and Ambika quietly munched on leaves and grass.
"These three animals are emblematic of our efforts to conserve this species," Berry said. "There are about half a million African elephants in the wild, but fewer than 30,000 Asian elephants. We don't have much to work with, and now is the time for us to turn around and save this species from extinction. We are going to be one of the leaders in this effort."
As such, Berry announced that the National Zoo's "Elephant Trails" expansion program will be finished in the spring of 2011. The idea is to house as many as 12 elephants — up from the current three — in a much more natural setting. The project will cost an elephantine $45 million, with $32 million of that coming from taxpayers and the rest from individual donors.
"We're standing here in this 1930s structure, but we're going to rip out this floor and put in a natural floor," he told assembled guests. "Skylights will run the length of this building, which will have a natural ventilation system during summer for cooling. This will connect to three and a half acres of space outdoors, where these animals will be able to roam. This will be the new gold standard for how to exhibit this magnificent species in captivity."
As Berry spoke, visitors toured the new Elephant Trails project, now under construction. Kiosks set up for the day offered Ceylon tea, traditional saris and free Sri Lanka travel brochures promoting the West Virginia-sized island nation of 20 million as "the pearl of the Indian Ocean."
Some three million people visit the National Zoo each year, but few are aware that Sri Lanka boasts one of Asia's largest elephant populations, along with India, Burma and northern Thailand.
"The elephant has deep cultural roots in Sri Lanka," said Berry. "In Buddhist processions, the greatest honor is for the elephant to carry Buddha's tooth. We hope to match our science with their passion and centuries of understanding the species so we can build a brighter future for Asian elephants."
He added: "Elephants have been a part of this zoo since we started in 1890. In the 1960s, our scientists — working with colleagues in Sri Lanka — were the first to radio-collar elephants so we could observe their movements in the wild."
Berry, noting that Shanthi was one of the first elephants in the world to conceive through artificial insemination, said understanding their reproductive systems is key to protecting this species. "We're hoping Shanthi might produce another baby," he said. "We'll be trying to breed her."