Last weekend the Auckland Zoo welcomed Anjalee the elephant; its newest arrival whose journey has taken nearly six years.
When Burma's, the Zoo's other Asian elephant, long-time companion Kashin passed away in 2009, the Zoo immediately began dreaming up ways to create a more permanent herd of elephants, who are extremely social creatures.
Finding Anjalee, whose name means 'gracious gift', would prove a nearly six-year challenge, and put the plan of bringing two young, female elephants together, on hold. The relocation of eight-year old Anjalee was no mean feat, and involved hundreds of people working across three countries, two Hercules planes, special export papers so Anjalee could be transported without violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, moving the Zoo crew to Sri Lanka, and a stint in sunny Niue.
Born in the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, Anjalee grew up with her mother and a group of female companions, as is common in the elephant world. At just four years old, she was separated from her mother who was ousted from the main social group.
This lack of dependence on her mother has made her "street smart" and resilient, says elephant team leader Andrew Coers. "She's been through a lot with the move, but with her personality she is able to cope with it."
Anjalee's parents were brought to the orphanage as victims of Sri Lanka's human-elephant conflict (HEC). The tiny country has a population of nearly 4000 wild elephants and 20 million people - all crammed into a space just over half the size of the North Island.
"The biggest issue for Sri Lanka is that there's not enough space," says Coers. "There are a number of beautiful national parks, but the elephants don't live just there. More than 70 per cent live outside of the national parks - so the majority live in areas where people live too."
Although 22 per cent of Sri Lanka is protected areas, elephants wander in and out, often coming into contact with farmers. Not surprisingly, elephants have a bad reputation, especially hungry elephants that can wipe out the banana plots and crops of subsistence farmers. On average, 150 elephant and 60 human die each year due to the conflict.
Auckland Zoo is trying to address the HEC through its Conservation Fund. Visitors to the zoo help the zoo raise $1.4 million each year, through a portion of their entry ticket price,which goes to projects in more than 22 locations both here and abroad.
The Fund contributes to two programmes in Sri Lanka. One sponsors an elephant-collaring project at the Centre for Conservation and Research, which allows researchers to gather information about the movement and range of elephants, which helps with their conservation management. "It's about Sri Lanka being able to be smart in where they target their development so that you can achieve co-existence, and that's the most important thing. Being for wildlife isn't about being against people; if we understand how wildlife live and how we can manage wildlife better then we can coexist," says Coers.
The other is a community educational programme run by the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust. This project runs a schools' awareness programme, teaching children how to empathise with elephants, and why they are special, which the youngsters then take home to their parents.
Director of the Auckland Zoo, Jonathan Wilcken, says that supporting these international conservation efforts is essential as our actions have impacts that aren't confined to New Zealand. "We have a global responsibility, just like another other country. Even if you live in New Zealand, you still have an impact on elephants and tigers and orang-utans. Just the chocolate you buy in the supermarket could be destroying the habitat of Asian elephants, because it might contain palm oil, for example."
Raising awareness about conservation issues, and how our behaviour impacts on wildlife, is part of the reason why the zoo still has exotic animals like elephants, says Wilcker.
"We are more and more urbanised and we've lost that connection to wildlife. If you are trying to get people to change the way that they live you can't do it unless they have an emotional connection - intellectual arguments will never change anyone's behaviours... The sort of connection you can provide with a zoo experience is incredible. If you don't build that connection people aren't going to care."
For Anjalee, her new home at Auckland Zoo will be her final stop after her three month quarantine stint in sunny Niue, where locals welcomed and fare welled her with lots of music and singing, in true island style.
The next step for the elephant will be adjusting to cooler temperatures, and to life with Burma. Coers hopes that she will eventually breed. He is proud that the Zoo has committed to the elephant, and her family, having a permanentplace at the Auckland Zoo for generations to come. "I'm glad to know that we've brought to her a situation where she will end up being a part of a family that will stay together forever."