New Honolulu Zoo Elephant Exhibit Opens

Habitat Is Nearly Ten Times Bigger Than Old Exhibit

 UPDATED 1:43 AM HST Dec 13, 2011

The Honolulu Zoo's elephants have a new $12 million home. Some may question the large amount of money needed for just two animals, but others say the millions spent now will help the future of the species.

With bells on their feet and their faces decorated, the Honolulu Zoo's two Asian elephants, Mari and Vaigai, showed off their new home on Monday.

"They're cute," said Kira Viner, a 9-year-old visitor from Canada.

"We finally get to meet them and see their new habitat," said Jefferson Elementary School student Noelle Kephart.

Planning for the new habitat started two decades ago, but construction didn't begin until 2006 -- an effort to move these pachyderms to a bigger place.

"This exhibit allows the elephants to get a lot of exercise which is critical to maintaining a healthy elephant," said Honolulu Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo.

"The other habitat was really small. It only had painted trees. This one is bigger, they have caves, they have real plants -- not painted ones," said Jefferson Elementary School student Jelena Kornicer.

There are also two pools for the elephants to cool off in. In their new home, the elephants have already been spotted playfully showering with sand or splashing in the water.

"We're seeing behavior we weren't seeing in the other exhibit," said Mollinedo.

But not all days have been happy ones for the Honolulu Zoo's elephants. Decades ago, its first elephant killed a trainer and had to be put down. Another was sent away and two have died at the zoo, one killed by other elephants.

But there is hope the new habitat will be the start of a brighter future for the zoo's elephants.

"This exhibit was built to eventually hold a male," said Mollindeo.

The zoo is, in fact, required to get a third elephant, one that will be breed with Mari and Vaigai. So maybe, in the future the new enclosure will also hold baby elephants as well.

The zoo is now working to bring in other endangered animals. The elephants' old exhibit will be then used to house Asian tapirs, animals which are related to rhinos and horses.

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