Big Daddy? Zoo's new elephant makes his first appearance

Ajani, a 17-year-old male elephant, made his first appearance at the Sedgwick County Zoo on Friday. Ajani joined the zoo's herd earlier this month.
Ajani, a 17-year-old male elephant, made his first appearance at the Sedgwick County Zoo on Friday. Ajani joined the zoo's herd earlier this month. Courtesy of the Sedgwick County Zoo

Seventeen-year-old Ajani walked into the elephant yard Friday morning as if he owned the place.

"He looks really relaxed out there, like he’s been here for years," said Lauren Ripple, elephant manager at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

Ajani, a bull elephant from the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama, arrived in Wichita on May 10 and has been slowly adjusting to his new environment. On Friday, he made his first appearance outside at the zoo, brushing his trunk against the rocks and trees and flapping his ears in a gentle Kansas wind.

Ajani is the first adult male in the zoo's herd, which includes six females and one juvenile male. He currently is separated from the herd but could be introduced to them as early as next week, Ripple said.

"Just like when we meet somebody new, sometimes you hit it off and sometimes the relationship has to build," Ripple said. "You do the same thing with elephants. You build it over time so there's not as much stress involved."

Ajani's name translates loosely to "he who wins the struggle." Weighing 9,500 pounds and measuring 9 feet, 6 inches at the shoulder, he towers over the rest of the zoo's herd. Stephanie, the second largest elephant, is 7,350 pounds and 8 feet at the shoulder.

Born at the Indianapolis Zoo in August 2000, Ajani was raised in a matriarchal herd similar to the Sedgwick County Zoo's, Ripple said, "so he should be well socialized." At age 11 he was moved to Birmingham's "bachelor herd," a transition similar to what would have happened in the wild, she said.

Now he's the potential Big Daddy in Wichita. Zoo officials hope he'll breed with the females so that a few years from now, we could welcome some baby elephants.

Ajani’s move is a part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Elephant Species Survival Plan, a program in which several zoos work together to protect and grow the African elephant herd in North America. Currently, African elephants are threatened because of poaching and trafficking for the illegal ivory trade.

About two years ago, six of the Sedgwick County Zoo's seven elephants arrived in Wichita from Swaziland as part of the collaborative effort.

"The females are very aware (of Ajani), and he's very aware of them," Ripple said Friday. The elephants have seen each other through fences but so far haven't been together in the yard or barn.

"They've been vocalizing back and forth, rumbling. If they see one another, they'll get as close as they possibly can and reach out with their trunks," she said. "So all parties are very curious with one another."

Ajani was expected to remain outdoors until about 3 p.m. Friday. For the rest of the holiday weekend he will return to a backyard area, and the rest of the herd will greet zoo visitors.

The Sedgwick County Zoo’s staff works with the elephants, who are trained every three days on different activities and are all working together as a herd. (video by Jaime Green/Feb. 23, 2017)