Elephant, not culture at issue in campaign to save Japan's oldest elephant

VANCOUVER - All Carol Buckley wishes for her first encounter with Japan's oldest elephant is that zookeepers accompany her to Hanako's concrete enclosure and allow her to peacefully observe.

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When the elephant behaviour consultant from Tennessee travels to Tokyo on Thursday to improve the 69-year-old animal's welfare she says she will not "go bombarding in like an American."

"Although they may not openly disagree with your approach, you will find doors closed to you if you don't respect their culture," said Buckley. "The bottom line is, this situation with Hanako is not a cultural issue. It's an elephant issue."

Buckley, an expert with more than 40 years' experience, has been hand-picked by a Vancouver woman spearheading a global campaign to make the elephant's final years more comfortable.

Ulara Nakagawa says she secured a meeting with administrators at the Inokashira Park Zoo after garnering more than 411,000 signatures in an online petition. The international attention since early February generated nearly 950 people donating more than US$29,000 for the pair to assess the famous elephant's health and living conditions.

"The clock is ticking for her," said Nakagawa.

The 35-year-old woman took on the project after an online supporter started the petition, inspired by a blog post Nakagawa wrote last fall decrying Hanako's "concrete prison."

Nakagawa and Buckley have arranged two meetings at the zoo using a Japanese translator.

"Our approach is that we just really want to be open and humble and collaborative," said Nakagawa.

"I want to take the opportunity and I want to take it as far as I can, because I think it's not only important for Hanako but it sets a precedent for other elephants in captivity all around the world."

The zoo did not immediately respond to request for comment. But last month its deputy director said it was "too late" to safely move Hanako and defended the exhibit as educational.

Buckley, the founder of Elephant Aid International, is known as something of an elephant whisperer. She has single-handedly led about two dozen elephant rescues and persuaded Nepal's government to become the first in Asia to end the practice of chaining.

Nakagawa originally campaigned for Hanako's transfer to a sanctuary in Thailand, but has since changed her objective.

"The more elephant experts I speak to, the more it's become abundantly clear that for Hanako's own safety, both psychologically and physically, that we get Carol there to do an initial assessment," Nakagawa said.

Over the coming days, Buckley plans to observe Hanako's behaviour inside her exhibit and with her keepers, learn about her daily routine and ask questions. She will also perform a body scan to examine the elephant's physical condition before making recommendations.

"I want to see if she is calm and relaxed, or whether she's fearful of her environment," Buckley said, adding she hopes the fix might include simple changes to the enclosure.

But more solutions will be necessary if Hanako is suffering from isolation or lack of security, said Buckley, such as creating companionship.

The average lifespan of Asian elephants in the wild is 60 to 70 years, Buckley said. But research by the Zoological Association of America found the same elephants only live to about 42 years in Western zoos.

She is keen to get to Japan to investigate how Hanako has lasted so long.

"The fact that she stands on concrete 24/7 should have been enough to cripple her by the time she was 30," Buckley said.

"There might be something in her diet that has actually protected her."


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