Sunday, January 03, 2010


PORTLAND, Ore. — It's been a big year for Oregon Zoo elephants — even the "little" ones. Samudra, the zoo's 1-year-old, 1,600-pound "baby," continued to grow and mature throughout 2009, inspiring both zoo visitors and the rest of the elephant herd, and making a weighty contribution toward the zoo's renowned Asian elephant program.

"Our elephant program has enjoyed remarkable success over the past year," said Bob Lee, senior elephant keeper at the zoo. "Sam continues to energize the herd with his lively and playful personality. It's exciting to watch."

The "little guy" has been growing, and now weighs more than 1,300 pounds over his birth weight. He enjoys playing in the yard and works well with keepers during his morning routine, during which he's given hay, bathed and brushed before walking around the exercise yard. He also receives weekly health checkups to ensure steady growth and wellness.

Along with Sam's development and training, zookeepers have continued the successful elephant exercise regimen that helps keep all the animals fit and healthy. Keepers say the program was especially important to Rose-Tu this past year, allowing her to stay physically fit in the year following her pregnancy. Prior to the successful birth of Samudra in 2008, brisk walks and daily workouts with her trainers helped prepare Rose-Tu for the difficulties of labor.

In August, hundreds of Samudra fans donned paper elephant ears and gathered in Elephant Plaza to celebrate Sam's first birthday. The playful 1-year-old received some snow to frolic in and enjoyed an elephant-sized cake (with one carrot for a candle) concocted by zoo executive chef Paul Warner. To watch a video of the event, visit

Throughout 2009, a team of University of Portland biologists tracked Samudra's behavior and interactions, compiling data to share with other zoos hoping to raise young elephants. Elephant births are relatively rare events, and these researchers' work should improve the chances of survival for this endangered species. For a look back at Samudra's first year, visit

Other 2009 highlights from the zoo's renowned elephant program included:

Interim Zoo Director Mike Keele, who serves as the Asian elephant Species Survival Plan coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, spent a good part of 2009 on fact-finding missions: gathering ideas, researching best practices, drawing up "wish lists" and scouting potential locations for an off-site elephant preserve. In May, Keele visited the Pittsburgh Zoo's International Conservation Center, a new off-site facility focusing on African elephant breeding and management programs. He also toured the 300-acre site of The National Elephant Center in Okeechobee, Fla., set to open in 2010.
Rama, the zoo's famous painting elephant, collaborated with keeper Jeb Barsh and artist Calley O'Neill on "Ambassador for the Endangered Ones," a project dedicated to the preservation of endangered species and their habitats ( In addition, Rama's solo works proved more popular than ever. The zoo sold more than 130 of his paintings in 2009 for a total of around $15,000. Proceeds support zoo conservation efforts and animal enrichment activities. To learn more about Oregon's "biggest" artist, visit
In late spring, three robotics whiz kids from the Catlin Gabel School revived a six-year-old, out-of-service environmental enrichment device, which mentally engages the zoo's bull elephants while also encouraging them to exercise. The device, initially designed by Portland State University students, had fallen into disrepair, and zookeepers lacked the resources to upgrade it — until these tech-savvy teens stepped up to the challenge.
In June, the zoo funded three separate elephant conservation projects through its innovative Future for Wildlife grant program. The grants support elephants and keepers working as conservation response units in Sumatra, as well as programs to save Asian elephants in Borneo and African elephants in Kenya's Samburu National Park.
Recently, the zoo supported Portuguese biologists working on a method for identifying individual Borneo elephants through DNA. Field researchers collected blood samples from five elephants on preserves in Asia. Unfortunately, two of these samples were contaminated, a third was lost in shipping, and DNA from the remaining two was "pretty well degraded." Since the lab conducting genetic analysis for the project is located in Eugene, technicians called the Oregon Zoo for help and were pleasantly surprised to find it houses Chendra, the only Borneo elephant in the United States. The lab's director of research drove up from Eugene and watched as zoo elephant keepers drew two vials of blood from Chendra. The lab will be doing genetic sequencing on her DNA in a week or two and should get some results soon thereafter.
On Dec. 11, "A Survey of Elephant Husbandry and Foot Health in North American Zoos," was published in Zoo Biology. This landmark paper is based on a survey of 78 elephant-holding institutions conducted for AZA by Oregon Zoo Conservation Research Associate Karen Lewis. The study includes strong evidence supporting the benefits of exercise programs for zoo elephants and the efficacy of AZA standards for elephant management and care.
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.

To learn more about the zoo's elephant program and watch video of Samudra and the rest of the herd, visit