Inokashira Park Zoo in western Tokyo is getting ready to fete the 65th birthday next month of Hanako, the oldest Asian elephant in Japan.
“She likes people very much,” said Miwa Saito, 28, one of four keepers who look after the pachyderm.
They feed her a special diet every day because she lost all but one of her four teeth around 30 years ago. As a result she suffers digestive difficulties and is troubled by constipation.
She is fed about 80 to 100 kg a day, including fruit and vegetables, fresh grass and hay, and bread. All of the food is cut into small pieces, and the keepers also prepare softball-size soft dumplings consisting of hay cubes, bananas, apples and sports drinks that Hanako can swallow easily.
At least three times a day they try to have her drink 15 liters of water mixed with salt, sports drinks and tea made from her favorite herb, “dokudami.”
Hanako has been living at the zoo for more than 50 years and has never had a major disease or injury. But she is very timid and nervous, especially from sounds such as sirens, thunder and passing aircraft.
It takes a keeper a long time to gain Hanako’s trust. Saito said she could not get close to Hanako when she was first put in charge of her, but after two years became able to hose her down with water, and now Hanako looks happy when Saito greets her every morning.
“The first two years were valuable for me in developing a trusting relationship with her,” she recalled.
Hanako is so friendly she approaches zookeepers while they are talking and puts her trunk in between them, as if wanting to join in the conversation, Saito said.
When the March 11 earthquake struck, Hanako began running around her play area, but she calmed down soon after a staff member hurried there to see her, said Saito, who was off-duty at the time.
According to Eri Tsushima, who is in charge of education and public relations at the zoo, Hanako currently stands about 2.3 meters tall and weighs about 2.8 tons, though it is impossible to measure her weight precisely.
While the elephant is still quick on her feet, her hearing is fading as she ages and she doesn’t sleep well.
The keepers also rub olive oil onto the tip of her tail as well as her ears and nails to prevent them from getting too dry.
“I want to enhance Hanako’s pleasure by devising activities that interest her” in addition to her current activities of rolling logs, scratching her body with a broom or rake, and ringing a bell set up in the play area, Saito said.
In July, the Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gave an award to Hanako in recognition of her long life and her contribution to the sense of “togetherness” between humans and animals.
Born in Thailand in 1947, though her actual birthday is not known, Hanako arrived in Kobe from Thailand in 1949 — the first elephant to come to Japan after World War II. She received an enthusiastic welcome from the public and was placed in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo and named after another Asian elephant that died there during the war.
Ueno Zoo had kept three elephants until the Tokyo governor ordered zoos to kill fierce animals to prevent disorder during wartime air raids. The three elephants were starved to death in 1943.
After the war, the public, especially children, demanded to see elephants at zoos again. At the time, only three were still alive in the country.
India and Thailand, where the elephants that had died had come from, shipped two more.
Hanako was relocated to Inokashira in 1954.
In 1956, she trampled to death a drunken man who had entered her enclosure, and four years later a zookeeper was found dead in her den. After those incidents, Hanako spent a period of time in chains before recovering her composure with her keepers’ help.
But with her increasing age she has become more temperamental, and the zoo has now adopted a system of improved safety for both humans and the elephant, in which the keepers feed her directly but through a protective barrier.
Many of Hanako’s fans regularly visit the zoo to see her. The space before her sleeping enclosure is often filled with people watching her eat during her mealtimes.
“She’s great to watch eating up food,” a 2-year-old girl shouted.
“Hanako is so clever that she can notice when frequent visitors come,” said Keiko Suzuki, a housewife in her 40s.
When Hanako turns 65, she will equal the record set by Suwako, an elephant that died at a zoo in Kobe in 2008.
Every year the zoo in Inokashira holds a birthday event for Hanako that attracts fans from across the nation, with events such as games and quizzes, and activities for children such as making dumplings.
Her 65th birthday celebration, scheduled for Feb. 5, is still being planned.
According to Guinness World Records, the oldest elephant on record died at age 86.