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Asian Elephant calf with mother

What is the reason for the breeding program?

The successful birth of elephant calves is the starting point for a self sustaining Asian Elephant population in Australia, one of the main goals of the breeding and conservation program.

The other goals are to create an appreciation of elephants, raise awareness of issues affecting their survival and to raise funds for conservation programs for elephants throughout Asia.

How did the female elephants get pregnant?

Our male elephant Gung naturally bred two of our female elephants, Thong Dee and Pak Boon.

Another female Porntip became pregnant through artificial insemination. This was performed by a world renowned team of elephant reproduction specialists from the Berlin Institute of Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research. This artificial insemination technique is vital to the genetic diversity and health of the future elephant herd to ensure that the calves are not all related. 

All three females have now successfully given birth to their first calves –

  • Thong Dee gave birth to Luk Chai on the 4th July, 2009
  • Porntip gave birth to Pathi Harn on the 10th March, 2010
  • Pak Boon gave birth to Tukta on the 2nd November, 2010

Were there any special preparations made for the births?

We put in place incredibly detailed and extensive plans to support all our pregnant females. These plans included dietary and fitness programs, preparing of specialised veterinary equipment, barn fitout for the arrival of young calves and a world renowned expert in elephant reproduction was available to assist from the first signs of labour.

Taronga's elephant manager has over 30 years experience with elephants and assisted in many births. He and other experienced keepers are part of the elephant society and are able to monitor and assist during the birth process. 

Where were the elephants during the births?

Many elephant births occur overnight. The elephant family at Taronga had access to their heated barn and the outdoor paddocks. It is important that all the elephants are close by during the birth process to learn, bond and gain experience from these events.

Keepers that are closely bonded to the elephants were with the elephants throughout the births and experienced vets were also on site.

Why is it necessary for Keepers to assist the elephants in the birth process? 
The females at Taronga Zoo were born in captive elephant camps in Thailand. They had very little or, in some cases, no experience of the birth process and newborn calves.

Our elephants have very close bonds with the Keepers, who provided support for the elephant mother and the newborn calf to ensure the birth process is as smooth and calm as possible. With every successful birth the elephants gained experience which will assist them greatly in the future. As the elephants participate in more births the roles and support structure required by the Keepers will diminish.

How long is an elephant pregnant?

An elephant pregnancy lasts for 21 - 22 months, the longest in the animal kingdom.

Thong Dee’s gestation was 646 days, Porntip’s gestation was 651 days and Pak Boon’s gestation period was 658 days. The average/median gestation period for recorded elephant pregnancies is 659 days.

How long does it take for an elephant to give birth?

Elephant labour can vary from one hour to a few days. A team of keepers and specialist vets are with the elephants throughout the entire process to assist and help out where necessary. 

How big is an elephant calf?

Asian elephant calves typically weigh between 90kg - 120kg at birth.

Can a calf use its trunk?

It takes time for a calf to acquire trunk coordination. At first it may only be able to wave it around in the air, suck on it or trip over it. However within 2 weeks the calf has usually gained enough control to try picking things up and carrying small objects.

How much does an elephant calf eat?

The calf suckles milk from its mother, generally taking up to 12 litres each day.

How long will it nurse / suckle for?

Elephant calves are usually dependent on mother's milk for up to 3 - 4 years, although they can be weaned at two years of age. By the time a calf is nine months old, 40 per cent of its diet is vegetation. The calf learns how and what to eat by watching the older elephants.

Will there be room at the Taronga Zoo for elephants and their growing calves?

The elephant barn and paddocks were designed using international standards and can accommodate four elephant cows and their calves. As part of the program female calves will stay with their mothers for life just as they would naturally. Male calves will move from the main herd as they mature. This movement of young males is also part of the normal lifecycle and when the appropriate time came for Taronga's male calves Luk Chai and Pathi Harn, they were moved to Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, along with their mothers.

Why are the elephant calves given Thai names?

Whilst the elephant calves at Taronga Zoo were born in Australia they will always be Asian Elephants of Thai descent. The traditional culture and heritage of the herd’s former country of Thailand will always be respected and play a role in our elephant program and as such, all elephant calves will be given authentic Thai names which are checked and confirmed with Thai Consular officials.

The elephants and their keepers communicate in both the English and Thai languages.

Why do the calves eat the droppings of the older elephants?

From about six months of age visitors may notice the young calves eating their mother’s faecal material. This is an essential step for young elephants as they begin the weaning process. Approx 60% of the faecal material is undigested plant material. It is already chewed up and soft and is usually the first solid food eaten by young elephants. The faecal material also contains bacteria that is ingested by the elephant calves and is essential in the processing and digestion of plant material once they are weaned off mother’s milk.