The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium will soon have its first elephants since 2011.
Six African elephants will move into the zoo’s new elephant holding building in the African Grasslands portion of the zoo sometime this fall or winter, said Dennis Pate, the zoo’s CEO and executive director.
The elephants will be the zoo’s first since Shenga, an African bush elephant, left for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio in 2011. Her departure came shortly after the death of her lone companion, Maliaka, in 2010.
The arrival of the elephants will come after three years of searching. Pate and others at the zoo traveled around the world in search of available elephants that were free of contagious disease and provided optimal breeding partners.
The elephants bound for Omaha — five cows and one bull — are part of a group of 18 to be imported from Swaziland. The others will go to zoos in Dallas and Wichita, Kansas, as part of a partnership between the zoos and the Big Game Parks Trust in the African nation.
Pate said the zoo didn’t exchange any money for the elephants. They did, however, make a "significant contribution" to Swaziland’s rhinoceros conservation program.
Pate and the zoo’s director of animal health, Doug Armstrong, traveled to Swaziland this summer to work with the elephants, returning after Pate made an exploratory visit in February 2014.
Elephants have long been a popular demand by visitors to the zoo. The African giants will live in the 29,000-square-foot elephant holding building soon to be completed in the southwest corner of the zoo. Pate said the building is the largest of its kind in North America.
For the first time, the zoo’s elephants will be on display year-round. During winter, visitors will be able to go inside the building, which has automatic feeders, on-site health equipment and a separate bull yard.
During the rest of the year, the elephants will spend most of their time in a mixed-species habitat with impala and zebras on a patch of grass that stretches along most of the zoo’s southern border. There, they’ll have a 150,000-gallon wading pool, a mud bath, a sand pit and hay shelves with timed drops that encourage the elephants to move from one station to the other for exercise and visibility.
An elephant amphitheater will stand near the African Lodge. There, keepers will demonstrate different training techniques as spectators watch from risers.
The elephant holding building was initially scheduled to open this summer, but the zoo shifted its construction timeline to better match the estimated arrival of the elephants.
The building is the largest of the zoo’s $73 million African Grasslands project, costing about $15 million.