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Why isn’t there an Elepani on Maui?

July 2, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

During my car ride from Kihei to Kahului every morning and back in the evening I listen to 'olelo Hawai'i (Hawaiian language) CDs. The ride is not a endless Mililani-Downtown Honolulu odyssey, but relatively short, about 23 minutes on a fast day, if no red dirt-streaked trucks emerge from the sugar cane fields and a red light interrupts my fast dash to Pu’unene Avenue and slightly beyond. But I want to learn something new in my 50 minutes daily total commute time, and decided to gain some Hawaiian phrases and words.

In my Hawaiian vocabulary drills, I discovered a fun word to say: elepani, or “elephant”. This is an example of a “loan word”, or a word that enters the Hawaiian vocabulary from another language. Of course there were no elephants in Hawai'i – and very few in Hawai’i saw an elephant until 1916, when one was exhibited at the forerunner of the current Honolulu Zoo -- one year after my father was born in Kahului. The word first appeared in English probably in the Middle Ages as “olifant”, and came from the French word “olifanz”, which came probably from the Latin “elephantus”, a word of Greek origin.

Loan words are nothing new and are part of any language. When I speak Japanese and say “pan”, it means “bread”, and comes from a Portuguese word (Portuguese missionaries converted Japanese to Christianity – and introduced bread – more than 200 years before Captain Cook -- or in Hawaiian “Kapene Kuki” -- arrived in Hawai’i). To seek part-time work in Japan is “arubaito”, a Japanese word from the German word “arbeit”, for work. In Hawaiian, when I want to call somebody on an electronic device, the word is “kelepona” or telephone – and a cellular device is “kelepona kekula”. In English, we don't think twice about using the Japanese word "tsunami" or a huge wave created by an earthquake -- it is part of daily conversation, in the English language.

But I digress, since I wanted to ask a simple question: Why isn’t there an elephant (or elephants) on Maui? How about a small zoo?*

Since the rise of air fares and the decline of disposable income from fall, 2008, fewer Maui families are traveling outside of Maui. There are more and more children on Maui who have never seen an elephant. For children to see an exotic animal from Africa or Southeast Asia broadens a child’s view of the world, that there are indeed enormous beasts or beautiful animals in jungles or savannah eco-systems, and there is more than just Kihei or Wailuku in our universe.

Historically, King David Kalakaua in 1876 launched a public park project near the slopes of Diamond Head, and in a year later, a beautified, landscaped expanse was opened for Honolulu residents, and was named Queen Kapi'olani Park in honor of Esther Kapi'olani, Queen Consort of Hawai'i.

King Kalakaua was actually thinking about a zoo for children and the kingdom’s citizens, as he transferred his personal collection of exotic birds and horses to the Queen Kapi’olani Park. By the end of his reign, Honolulu children could see all kinds of exotic animals at the park.

After the Overthrow, and into the 20th century, the City & County of Honolulu managed Queen Kapi'olani Park, and hired in 1914 a remarkable head of Parks and Recreation, an energetic individual named Ben Hollinger. He soon created the first zoo at Kapi’olani Park – showcasing a monkey (“Keko” in Hawaiian), a bear (“Pea” – Aha! Sounds very much like the original word in English, much like “elepani”), and lions (“Liona”).

Two years after his hire, a ship with an African elephant (named “Daisy”) docked at Honolulu, and Hollinger lobbied the City government to buy the elephant (why the ship was transporting an elephant across the Pacific is unknown). Daisy became the centerpiece of the new Honolulu zoo – can you imagine the Hawaiian families shrieking: “Look at the big elepani!”

After ups and downs in the post-War period, the revitalized zoo since the 1970s is now attracting many children and tourists daily (including my late father, who loved animals and enjoyed visiting the zoo with my daughter when she was a small child).

In the late 19th century, when King Kalakaua created the grounds for the now-called Honolulu Zoo, the entire population of Hawai’i was barely 200,000 – Maui is now over 155,000. In 2012 it is time in Maui’s history, as King Kalakaua** envisioned for Honolulu in the late 1800s, to explore a beautiful space for an elepani or two, plus many other animals, birds, and reptiles (only male snakes) on Maui. My late father endured two terrible wars and found solace and healing later in his life by watching African animal programs on television and following chimpanzees frolicking at the Honolulu Zoo. He would have been a big supporter of a zoo on Maui.

*Actually, the dry rolling uplands of Kihei may remind elephants of their native home.

**I graduated from Kalakaua Intermediate in Kalihi-Palama, so I have a special affinity for King Kalakaua. He also revived Hawaiian music and dance; the “Merrie Monarch” contest is named in honor of his great passion for Hawaiian performing arts.

 
 

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