CINCINNATI – If Fiona, the Cincinnati Zoo’s new baby hippo, is the cutest thing ev-er, the Asian elephant born there on March 15, 1998 might be a close second.
Huge crowds walked through the elephant house on the first weekend to gawk and wonder at the 215-pound baby boy huddled with his mother Jati. A contest to name the newborn got some 10,000 entries.
“Elephants, by our visitor surveys, are the most popular animals at the zoo,” said Ed Maruska, the Cincinnati Zoo director at the time. “And if you have a baby elephant, you just magnify that.”
Zoo officials called it a history-making birth – the first elephant conceived and born in Ohio in 10,000 years, since the days of the wooly mammoth. At the time, it was one of a few dozen elephants born in captivity anywhere.
A panel of zoo officials and staff – including Maruska and the elephant keepers, Cecil Jackson Sr. and his son Cecil Jr. - picked the winning name, Ganesh. That’s a Hindu god with an elephant head - the god of wisdom and learning, as well as the remover of obstacles.
Jati was pregnant for 22 months and the zoo went to great lengths to ensure that her grueling labor and delivery were successful. For one thing, her keepers made sure she got plenty of exercise.
“We walked her through the park and we’d take her out in the yard, circle her, running her around out there,” Jackson Sr. said.
Jackson Sr. slept on a cot in the elephant house on several nights leading up to Ganesh’s birth. When the moment came, you would have thought he’d seen an elephant fly.
“It was super. When that baby came out of there and his eyes were open, man, and we had a live baby - it was great,” Jackson said. “It’s hard to explain. Really, I just can’t tell you how I felt.”
Jackson was a zoo icon himself. People called him “Animal Man.” He worked for the zoo for nearly 50 years and trained elephants and a variety of other animals for the popular outdoor shows at the zoo. He took them to schools, parades and special events around town. Jackson died last January at the age 87. His son, Cecil Jr., succeeded him as elephant manager.
While Ganesh was the first elephant born at the zoo, he also was the last.
Ganesh moved to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 2003. He died at the age of 7 of the highly fatal Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) in 2005.
Despite its success at breeding rhinos, gorillas, hippos, giraffes, cheetahs and just about everything, the Cincinnati Zoo has not been able to produce another elephant.
“There’s no short answer to the breeding question,” zoo spokesperson Michelle Curley told WCPO for this story. “We have put Sabu and Jati, Ganesh’s parents, together for breeding many times, but no pregnancies have resulted.”
Nineteen years ago, Maruska warned that zoos had to do more to keep the Asian elephant from going extinct.
“Zoos are not breeding Asian elephants the way they should be. The elephant population is aging. In about 25 or 30 years, if we don’t increase or change the way we’re doing things, we won’t have elephants – at least Asian elephants,” he warned.
Asian elephants have not become extinct - there are still between 40,000 and 50,000 – but they are considered endangered, especially from poaching.
The Cincinnati Zoo has four elephants and plans for more, Curley said.
“The zoo remains committed to breeding Asian elephants,” she said.
The zoo is also helping elephant conservation efforts in Asia, Curley said.
And Curley said the zoo is working to save elephants from the EEHV that killed Ganesh.
“We also participate in a multi-institutional research project conducted by the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo with the goal of finding a cure and creating a vaccine for EEHV,” Curley said.
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