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Zoo creating Sandys savanna

Remote elephant center will mimic an environment found in the Asian outback


by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: MICHAEL DURHAM, COURTESY OREGON ZOO - Asian elephants, from left, Chendra, Rose-Tu, Samudra, and Shine are pictured near a water feature. The Oregon Zoo’s proposed remote center at the former Roslyn Lake is in an ideal part of Clackamas County, not far from Sandy and Gresham, but away from highway noise.

That docile environment is ideal for an Asian elephant, a normally quiet wild animal. Often all an elephant will do when it is a bit excited is “trumpet” or “chirp,” said Mike Keele, director of elephant habitat at the Oregon Zoo.

Females have their “sewing circles,” where they are actively socializing with one another, but the males usually are more docile and mainly stay away from the female groups.

However, everyone knows males attract females, so Keele says there is a unique relationship between males and females who are attracted to one another.

“There’s a real dynamic,” Keele said, “about how the males play into the females’ social hierarchy.”

Male elephants that grow up at the remote elephant center will find they are living in a female-dominated society.

The near-wild conditions mimicked by the center will encourage the animals to socialize with their natural instincts.

In other words, the females will ostracize the males, said Keele, making the males unwelcome in the females’ social circle.

In the photo on this page, three females are lining up to protect a 2-year-old baby from an advancing male (not pictured). The male will not be allowed to stay near any of the group in the photo.

“That’s a difficult arrangement to maintain in the zoo’s tight quarters,” Keele said. “But a remote elephant center allows a lot more room for these bachelor groups to coexist.”

But being bachelors and old maids is not all there is in the life of an elephant.

Reproductively viable males and females must find one another in a separate space to help the herd grow. Keele said an important reason for the remote center is to grow the herd.

The 1.5-acre zoo space, which is being expanded to six acres, will pale when compared to the more than 200 acres at the remote center.

With that much space, zoo staff can create nearly wild conditions, using their favorite plant species and soil type to create a favorable living environment. They also can transport genetically important males between the zoo’s two herds (near Portland and near Sandy), which also mimics males’ movement between herds in the wild.

“We want the elephants to express their natural behaviors,” Keele said, “so we can study them and help develop compatible groups of elephants.”

Developing those groups might require moving animals between the zoo and remote center because some individuals might not fit well into the hierarchy where a matriarch sets the rules and determines who fits in with the group socially.

“The decision to move an animal either way,” Keele said, “relies heavily on what provides the best welfare for each individual animal.”

Asian elephants of the type seen at the Oregon Zoo exist in the wild in at least a dozen warm and humid countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, India and Borneo.

Because many people don’t have the opportunity to visit those wild areas, the Oregon Zoo is planning to eventually open the remote center a couple of times each year to visitors, including school children, so they can see the animals in naturally wild conditions.

“This is a very special facility,” Keele said, “and we want the public to see it more in a scheduled fashion (not open every day as in the Oregon Zoo).”