In 2009, Auckland Zoo sat at a crossroads. Much-loved female elephant Kashin had just passed away, leaving Burma, then 29 years old, on her own. As a good modern zoo, we knew then that we had to either commit fully to the species and begin building the multi-generational herd that Asian elephants ultimately need for their long-term wellbeing, or find a new home for Burma where she could be part of that kind of family in a zoo overseas.
With the unique skill and dedication of our elephant keepers, the promise of young female animals from an orphanage in Sri Lanka, an increasingly successful co-operative breeding programme in Australia, and support from Auckland Council and our wider community, we confidently and excitedly chose the former. Given the same set of circumstances today, we would make the same decision again.
There have been numerous highlights during my 10 years at Auckland Zoo but, perhaps none so personally fulfilling than the arrival of Anjalee and her joyous introduction to Burma in 2015. She arrived on a wave of unbridled optimism at the Zoo as the first of two young females promised to Auckland Zoo as part of partnership that I helped establish with Sri Lanka's Department of National Zoological Gardens. Unfortunately, the second young female was inadvertently caught up in court action in Sri Lanka demanding a ban on all exports of captive-bred elephants from the country, which five years on shows no sign of resolution.
Despite this setback we were hugely optimistic that Anjalee would quickly become pregnant as part of the successful regional breeding programme. We engaged the world's leading elephant reproductive experts from Germany's Leibniz Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research and, in 2017, we began the first of five AI attempts.
For the first three of these AI attempts we had access to highly viable, freshly collected bull semen flown straight to the Zoo from our zoo colleagues in Australia. What we – and the German experts – did not know at the time, was that Anjalee's highly unusual and sensitive reproductive cycle would prevent any of these early attempts from succeeding.
By the time we had properly established her unusual hormone cycle and ovulation timings, the availability of fresh viable bull semen in the region had all but dried up, particularly following the death of Melbourne Zoo's prolific bull, Bong Su, who had previously sired a number of calves in the region via AI.
By late 2019 we were facing a situation where further AI attempts were not possible without a reliable source of donor semen within the critical 24-hour time period required to collect, transport and then inseminate a receptive Anjalee waiting in Auckland.
Anjalee is now 14 years old and has also reached a crossroads. If she doesn't breed within the next few years, she will run the risk of developing reproductive issues that could ultimately, affect her health, her future ability to have a calf of her own, and even shorten her life. This window for her to breed is still very much open, but it won't stay that way for ever.
For her long-term wellbeing, Anjalee must therefore now move to a good zoo programme so she can breed soon and, now that there is no longer a path for us to build the family herd that both elephants need for their long-term wellbeing, Burma must leave with her.
There is a saying that "the right decision is often the hardest one to make" and that has never felt truer to me than right now. I know that this call we have made is absolutely the right thing for both Anjalee and Burma but, I also know how absolutely gutted our zoo whanau and wider community will be by it. The exceptional care our elephant team provides mean that both animals currently live incredible, happy lives with us here in Auckland, free from the chains that they would otherwise have experienced.
In the past five years since Anjalee arrived, more than three million Auckland Zoo visitors have had the opportunity to experience a unique connection with elephants. Incredibly, research has shown that almost half of those visitors have felt compelled to take action to help wildlife following their visit to our Zoo. Bringing almost 1.5 million people into the vital wildlife conservation conversation is – in my humble opinion – an outstanding and invaluable success.
It may be the end of an era for Auckland and New Zealand. But, as current kaitiaki of Auckland's Zoo we have made a commitment to these animals and we have made a promise to our community and ourselves, that we will always put the wellbeing and future of the animals in our care before our own feelings. That is why we must now do the right thing by Anjalee and Burma and plan for the next chapter of their lives in their new home overseas.
• Kevin Buley is the Director of Auckland Zoo. He has worked for more than 25 years in some of the world's leading zoos in Europe and New Zealand.