African elephants make themselves at home in Somerset County


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FAIRHOPE, Pa. -- It's not a savannah in Tanzania, but the Pittsburgh Zoo's International Conservation Center on 724 rolling rural acres appears to be a good fit for Bette and Kallie, two 20-something African elephants from the Philadelphia Zoo.

Yesterday, the two cow elephants, who arrived at the former commercial wild game hunting reserve July 8 when the Philadelphia Zoo closed its elephant exhibit, ambled outside for the first time, ripping up some grass and rearranging several trees. They roamed around the 3.5-acre paddock, fenced in by cement-anchored, 10-foot-tall steel I-beams, and heavy braided wire similar to those used on suspension bridges.

Their coming out party occurred in an enclosure next to one where Jackson, the Pittsburgh Zoo's prolific breeding bull elephant, was pacing and trumpeting, and was chaperoned by about two dozen media and zoo officials from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"We did what we thought was right for the animals," said Vikram Dewan, the Philadelphia Zoo's chief executive officer, about the decision to close the zoo's elephant exhibit. "This place is already a great home for them and we have the opportunity to work with a world-renowned staff with a real commitment to elephants."

Jackson has been living at the facility, purchased by the Pittsburgh Zoo for $2 million in 2005, since mid-December and has been separated from the females night and day since they arrived at the 10,000-square-foot reinforced concrete block barn with four indoor stalls.

Willie Theison, the Pittsburgh zoo's elephant manager, said they have reached from adjoining stalls to touch trunks. Yesterday was the first time the elephants were able to see each other.

Barbara Baker, president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, said Jackson and the females are aware of each other and often communicate.

"They rumble when Jackson is in the stall next to them and trumpet to him to get his attention," she said. "Of course, Jackson always answers them."

Jackson didn't get his rep by playing coy. He has fathered five calves at the Pittsburgh Zoo, including Angelina and Zuri, born last year, two more while at Disney in Florida, and two others through artificial insemination. Eventually he may get together with one or both of the Philadelphia females, but not until they acclimate to their new surroundings.

The elephant barn has a large indoor sand area with heated concrete pads. The zoo is planning to build a one-acre indoor facility that will provide housing for elephants of various ages as well as a large indoor area for exercise in the winter, staff training and education programs.

The ICC, as Pittsburgh Zoo officials refer to the facility, is the first run by an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoo with a strong emphasis on the African elephant.

Dr. Baker said it will be used to increase successful reproduction of the African elephant population in North America and develop a national training program for elephant managers and keepers. Eventually the facility could house as many as 20 elephants.

There are also plans to use the facility to expand the zoo's work in breeding other endangered species, such as cheetahs, black rhinoceroses, African painted dogs, Grevy's zebras and Amur leopards, which do not breed well in captivity.

There are about 300,000 African elephants in the wild, a large number but one that is down substantially from the 1.3 million in 1950. There are only about 2,000 Asian elephants, a number well below sustainable levels.


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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