The Oklahoma City Zoo will host a birthday party Sunday for Malee, the first elephant ever born at the facility. Already a visitors’ favorite, the soon-to-be 1-year-old female plays a vital role in the zoo’s efforts to conserve critically endangered Asian elephants.
Malee was born shortly after her mother, Asha, and aunt Chandra moved into the zoo’s $13 million elephant habitat. Designed to house at least six elephants, the 9.5-acre exhibit includes a barn specifically made to facilitate elephant births.
Malee began life confined to the barn, and was introduced to water in a wading pool. She has since graduated to the largest of the three elephant yards and its 214,000-gallon pool.
“She got to a point where she was jumping in like any kid,” said Alan Varsik, assistant zoo director.
Malee has nearly quadrupled her 304-pound birth weight, and now tips the scales at a healthy 1,120 pounds.
“It’s been fun. I think our guests really enjoy watching Malee grow,” Varsik said.
The opening of the exhibit and Malee’s birth helped spur record-breaking attendance, with more than 1 million visitors last year despite an equally record-breaking heat wave.
Rex, a bull elephant and recommended breeding partner for Chandra, joined the herd in December. There are no signs of pregnancy yet.
“We certainly anticipate expanding our herd at the zoo,” Varsik said.
Its conservation efforts extend to Sumatra. In 25 years, the Sumatran elephant population has dwindled by half, with fewer than 3,000 left in the wild. The species was downgraded from “endangered” to “critically endangered” in January. More than 80 percent of their habitat has been lost, primarily to palm oil plantations and illegal logging; of the habitat remaining, 85 percent is unprotected and at-risk.
The zoo has formed partnerships with the PanEco Foundation in Sumatra to help.
“We really like to connect our guests with nature and with animals at a time when there is probably the greatest disconnect between humanity and nature and the interdependency there — and at a point when the decisions we make significantly influence the world around us,” said Varsik.
Malee’s birthday bash will include cake, party favors and activities for humans and elephants alike. Zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson added that Malee will be given “toys she can destroy, devour and play with.”