Brian Rudman
Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Is central Auckland any place for a herd of elephants?

Burma with one of Auckland Zoo's elephant keepers, Andrew Coers. File photo / Herald on Sunday
Burma with one of Auckland Zoo's elephant keepers, Andrew Coers. File photo / Herald on Sunday

The Auckland City Council seems determined to go out of existence with a roar, or a bellow, or whatever it is that elephants do.

Many years ago now, I filled in time on a stopover in Nairobi by visiting a game reserve on the fringes of the urban spread. Now Auckland's city fathers and mothers seem determined to go one better, and install a herd of elephants in inner-city Western Springs Park.

They're backing Auckland Zoo's plans to import nine buddies to cheer up lonely Burma, the zoo's sole elephant since the death of Kashin last August.

The problem is, elephants need space, which the zoo doesn't have, so its solution is to purloin 22,000sq m of adjacent parkland and set up a new elephant cow area of 13,400sq m, and a separate "bull" area of 7100sq m. This is on top of the 1550sq m Burma currently calls home.

Now I'm the first to admit that a zoo without elephants isn't a real zoo.

As a kid, a trip to the zoo was about riding Jamuna. Just as visiting the museum was running around the echoing passageway until you found Rajah, Jamuna's stuffed predecessor. He's still a firm favourite with the kids, apparently, loving his moulting hide as much as any threadbare teddy bear.

Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken acknowledges this pulling power in a February 2009 report to councillors.

"Elephants attract enormous public interest and empathy." He said phasing elephants out of the zoo's collection would involve significant costs, and that "replacing the exhibit value of elephants would require a species of equivalent flagship status".

Gorillas were his suggested substitute. "Without such a flagship species, the zoo could see some erosion of public interest ..."

That said, 10 elephants does seem a little excessive. Especially when it means an initial investment of around $13 million and a big bite out of the popular, well-used Western Springs lakeside park. If the February 2009 plans are followed, the new cow enclosure will occupy the bush-covered area over the back fence of the residents of West View Rd, while the bull elephants will have their own space closer to the lake.

Which raises the question: should a popular, well-used park (Pasifika Festival, Speedway, pop concerts) have to give up part of its territory to a herd of imported elephants? No doubt, for many, a family expedition to the lake to feed the ducks will be enhanced by the possibility of spotting a nosy bull elephant waving his trunk over the fence in the distance. But conversely, what will the elephants make of a loud concert, or the roar of speedway?

The latest report by council officers rejects setting up a green-fields elephant exhibition elsewhere in the region, citing the expense of duplicating infrastructure and visitor facilities leading "to a dilution of visitor experience [and] a loss of revenue for the zoo".

That presumably rules out the nearby Meola Reef Reserve ex-tip site which, bounded by water on three sides, seems an ideal roaming wilderness.

Back in March last year, when this proposal first surfaced, I did suggest that given the opposition by Ngati Whatua to erecting the homeless Wind Tree sculpture, which once graced downtown Queen Elizabeth Square, in the Western Springs lake, on the grounds the stainless-steel foundation poles might upset the resident eel population, a herd of elephants tramping around the local bush was hardly going to be welcomed by tangata whenua.

Animal rights groups are not going to be pleased either, even if the herd is to be sourced from captive or zoo-bred stock anyway. I'm not a great fan of zoos. I don't like seeing great cats and birds in cages.

And as a kid, the mentally disturbed polar bear that once disgraced Auckland Zoo, shaking its head back and forth endlessly while astride a dirty white slab of concrete "ice", tended to cancel out the pleasure of renewing one's acquaintance with Jamuna.

Accepting that Burma needs a herd of mates, and a large space to wander, is a sign of how much attitudes have changed for the better.

But that still leaves the dilemma, in this day and age: is Western Springs in the centre of urban Auckland, or for that matter anywhere in New Zealand, an appropriate home for a herd of Asian elephants.

- NZ Herald

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