The First Lady of Auckland Zoo: Jamuna the Elephant

The recent arrival of the new elephant Anjalee at Auckland Zoo provides an excuse to take a nostalgic look back at one of the Zoo’s previous much-loved elephants: Jamuna.

Many locals have fond memories of having had a ride on Jamuna as a child. During her lifetime, Jamuna is estimated to have given rides to three-quarters of a million people. 

Jamuna wasn’t resident at the zoo at the time of its opening on 17th December 1922, but arrived shortly afterwards, in June 1923.

Jamuna, thought to be six years old, came from the Zoological Gardens of Calcutta, accompanied by her mahout Ater Ali. Her purchase was funded by a donation from businessman, Auckland City Counsellor and first life member of the Auckland Zoological Society: John Court.

As the Elephant House was not yet completed, Jamuna was first housed in the council works depot. This proved to be less than ideal with Jamuna breaking out when left alone one evening and causing quite a bit of destruction.

Jamuna had been familiar with giving rides to children in Calcutta, and started giving rides to children at the Auckland Zoo on 10th November 1923, with the first rides going to the children who had won an essay-writing competition.

Much to the delight of Auckland families, as a condition of his gift, John Court had stipulated that rides on Jamuna would be free for the first year. 

Mahout Ater Ali had a somewhat troubled relationship with his employers. Wood notes that there were disputes over pay, working conditions and residency permits. As a result of these, Ali left the zoo in 1925, zookeeper J Dawson having been trained to manage Jamuna. This 1929 newspaper article describes Ali as an overstayer, being ordered to leave New Zealand.

In 1930, following an offer from the Hobart City Council, a bull elephant, Rajah, was purchased as a companion for Jamuna. However, Rajah quickly proved to be of a highly disagreeable disposition, was unable to be used for elephant rides, and after a string of incidents was finally shot by his keeper in 1936.

Jamuna remained highly popular with children and other visitors. Tragically, in 1954, 65-year-old keeper Frank Lane died when the Jamuna swung her trunk, knocking him into a wall; the coroner judged the death to have been accidental rather than from a deliberate attack. Jamuna continued give rides to successive generations of children, and earned more than her keep in ride fees, as attested to in this 1943 article.

A female companion elephant, Kassala, was more successful than Rajah, but was sold in 1957 under some controversy; in 1961, another elephant Malini was gifted to the zoo by the Indian government, however I have been unable to trace what happened to her.

Jamuna passed away on the 2nd September 1965, and her 42 years of service was memorialised in a plaque placed on the wall of the elephant house. The tradition of giving elephant rides died with Jamuna, zoo practice having changed much over the years. As a replacement for Jamuna, in 1968 Ma Schwe was gifted to the zoo by the son of John Court, but died in 1982 of acute heart failure. Kashin joined the zoo in 1973, and Burma arrived in 1990. When Kashin died in 2009, she was farewelled by over 17,000 visitors. Whist other zoo elephants have continued to follow in her (large) footsteps, as the zoo’s First Lady, Jamuna has left a long and lasting impression.

The background reading that informs this post was from A tiger by the tail: a history of the Auckland Zoo, 1922-1992 by Derek Wood with Robert Mannion.

This is the second in our series on elephants in Auckland.

Author: Rachel, Central Auckland Research Centre 


  1. I'm sorry I have to absolutely disagree with your statement about Rajah. A consiiderable amount of time was spent by both myself and fellow historian/close friend Lisa Truttman. Rajah had spent his early days at Hobart Zoo (Beaumaris Zoo) he was used for giving children rights from 1927 until 1930 when economic factors forced Hobart City Council to sell Rajah. The assertions made in A Tiger by the Tail about the so-called cause of Rajah's alleged bad temper have been proved to be a complete fallacy based on a letter written by North Shore socialite E. J Tremain who had made a number of unfounded claims about Rajah including that he had been at London Zoo. Rajah was never at London Zoo, in fact he had been on exhibition at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London (Wembley Stadium) and was owned by animal dealer George Bruce Chapman. He was swamped for a Bennets Wallaby and a Tasmanian tiger arriving in 1925. There is very little mention of Rajah and any issues in the zoo archives until the appointment of Col. Sawyer who decided that Rajah should be destroyed and it had nothing to do with temper rather that he considered the elephant to be a liability. He asked permission to have Rajah destroyed and the bones and skin offered to the Auckland Museum. it was granted with a note attached "No publicity" I wrote about Rajah back in 2010 which was used in Brian Gill's book about some of the icons in the Auckland Museum.

    and later I revisited the causes of Rajah's destruction in a further blog post titled "The Wild Child Revisited" Auckland Zoo as a result removed the reference mentioned in a Tiger by the Tail about the so called "cigarette in the truck" incident which never happened.

    Ater Ali had actually gone into business during his time in between court visits. Eventually he was deported possibly to Fiji. I would also caution against relying completely on A Tiger by the Tail as a sole reference. Better sources are available through the Parks & Recreation Committee minutes and reports held at Auckland Council Archives.

    1. Hi Liz, Ater Ali was my Grandfather and he did make his life & family in Fiji :)

      Adam Khan.

    2. Hi Adam WOW!! so good to know Ater's involvement with the zoo is important as is his story

  2. BTW it is not Malina the correct name is Malini cheers. Kassala was sold to Bullens circus.

    1. Thank you very much for enlightening us Liz. I've changed Malini's name and passed your comments on to the author :-)

      Thanks again, Andrew.

  3. Hi Liz, Ater Ali was my grandfather & he did get deported to Fiji where he raised a family. I'd like to find a copy of the book A tiger by the tail : a history of the Auckland Zoo. If you know where I can buy one, please let me know.

    Thank you,
    Adam Khan

    1. Hi Adam,

      I had a quick look for you and found a couple on AbeBooks:



  4. Thank you Andrew! I bought them :) Adam

  5. Interesting My mother always mentioned Rajah as having a bad temperament.She was a frequent Zoo visitor (born 1916)
    When the keeper of Jamuma died we understood at the time that she was frustrated by cramped concrete quarters teathered by her foot when not working and getting a bit grumpy in old age. I rode Jamuma at every opportunity as a kid as was a frequent Zoo visitor I will never forget the lurching movement of being aboard as she walked round the central duck pond on her usual round per ride. Some of my fondest memories.

  6. I will never forget my ride on jamuma as a 4yr old i am now 72 yrs old and the ride aroumd the duck pond was a highlight to my auckland holiday

  7. My late husband was a frequent visitor to the child in the forties. He had a relative who was a keeper and lived onsite. He vividly remembers one ride on Jamuna when she decided to wade into the duck pond and stay there. The children had to climb down a ladder.

    1. That should be ... "visitor to the zoo as a child"

  8. You can hear a sound recording of Jamuna from 1943 in a children's radio broadcast by station 1ZB here

  9. Just had some very old negatives developed. They included a photo of Jamuna carrying his passengers around the duckpond at Auckland Zoo. That brought back childhood memories for me.
    I've posted it on Twitter @Non_Gardener.


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