What is the point of the breeding program?
The successful birth of these 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 and impregnated two of our female elephants - Thong Dee and Pak Boon. He is the first and only male elephant in Australia to ever achieve this.
Our female matriarch - 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 fit-out 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 is integrated into the social structure of the elephant herd and he along with other elephant Keepers participated as "aunties" during the birth process.
Where were the elephants during the births?
Many elephant births occur overnight. The elephant family 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 elephant herd throughout the births and experienced vets were also on site.
Why is it necessary for Keepers to assist the elephants in the birth process?
In a wild herd of elephants females gain birthing and maternal experience from a very young age through witnessing many births in the herd. By the time it’s their turn they are prepared for the event and have a support structure of older experienced females.
Our females at Taronga Zoo were born in captive elephant camps in Thailand. They have 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 have been part of their social group for many years. The Keepers provide the support structure 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 are gaining 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.
Why do you put a harness on a new born calf?
Sometimes a harness is fitted to a new born calf a few hours after they are born. The harness is designed to help the Keepers introduce the new-born calf to its mother and the other female elephants. For females with no or very little experience with young calves, having this strange object run underneath you and falling at your feet can be a scary prospect. Many calves have unfortunately been killed by inexperienced females who squash the calf out of fear.
- The harness allows the Keepers to maintain control over a strong and slippery calf and ensure that these introductions to the females are calm and successful.
- The harness is immediately removed after the elephants have accepted and are comfortable with the calf.
- As our female elephants gain more experience with newborn calves this harness is unlikely to be required and was not used in the recent birth of Tukta.
When can visitors see the calves?
All the calves are doing incredibly well and are growing up fast. Visitors can see all three of our elephant calves with the main female herd located in the ANZ Rainforest Trail opposite the Taronga Food Market.
If you cannot see them outside in the upper paddock check the lower paddock or the elephant barn as they may be having a bath with mum and the keepers.
Will there be room at the Zoo for the 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 natural lifecycle and places will be provided for them at other Zoo's who will participate in the breeding program.
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.