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Phil Koperberg: NSW Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water

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Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water Phil Koperberg announced today that a baby elephant is expected to be delivered at Taronga Zoo's Wild Asia in mid 2009 - a first for the Australasian region.

Minister Koperberg said Taronga's young female Asian Elephant, Thong Dee, was five months pregnant, just 15 months after arriving from Thailand via the Cocos Keeling Islands.

"An ultrasound last week showed a healthy foetus just under 10 cm long and very active, like its father, the male elephant, Gung," he said.

"Although it's very early days yet, we believe Taronga's preparations and specially designed elephant exhibit will help reduce the risk for the first-time mother. 

"In the wild first-time mothers can lose up to 50 per cent of their calves either during pregnancy or as neo-natal deaths.

"This exciting news is a tremendous success for Taronga's regional Conservation

Breeding Program and for the future of our largest living land animals."

Mr Koperberg said Asian Elephants were more endangered than their African relatives.

"Asian elephants face an uncertain future threatened by shrinking living space and poaching for the ivory trade and there may be just 34,000 left," he said.

"While this might seem stable, some countries have fewer than 200 animals left in the wild which is genetically unsustainable.

"In Thailand alone, the area of rainforest has diminished from 80 per cent coverage prior to Word War two to only 15 per cent today.

"World Zoos represent the best hope for many endangered species around the world and this pregnancy confirms the years of planning and research that Taronga Zoo, strongly supported by the Iemma Government, has put into this carefully considered program.

"As with any conservation breeding program, our long term aim is to preserve the genetic diversity of this endangered species within the zoo as an insurance policy if wild populations were to collapse in the future."

The Zoo's Director, Guy Cooper said when the elephants arrived in Taronga in November 2006, the breeding program began with conditioning that allowed keepers to train the elephants to have ultrasounds and regular medical checks.

"Supported by a carefully chosen team of expert keepers and global zoo knowledge of Asian Elephant breeding, including advice from German mega-fauna reproductive expert, Dr Thomas Hildebrandt, our program made immediate progress," he said.

"The elephants at Taronga have matured rapidly due to their high standards of diet, exercise and care. Continuous reproductive assessments undertaken last year established that all the females were viable for breeding.

"From the start, the male Gung, 7, began doing what he was supposed to do in an elephant herd, mating with the females. Over months, his relationship with them changed from being a playful younger brother to being a desirable young male.

"It was always our plan to breed Gung with the younger females Thong Dee and Tang Mo. He has now been successful in mating nine year old Thong Dee.

"Our Elephant Manager, Gary Miller, has brought a wealth of knowledge on elephant breeding from the USA, where he was involved in nine elephant births and has attended several of the elephant mothers as the ‘aunty' to help during their births."

Elephant Breeding Fact Sheet

Breeding season - mostly non-seasonal - breed year round

Reproductive cycle - cycle approximately every 4 months and can be in heat for up to four days

Gestation period - 22 months or 630-660 days - the longest gestation period of any mammal

Birth weight - 100-150kg

Inter-birth interval - 3-4 years in favourable conditions but can be from 5-8 years

Age of sexual maturity - 8-9 years for both sexes however in the wild males may only become sexually active between 15-20 years

Number of mammary glands - 2 between the front legs

Other facts

  • if bred early in life (before 20 years) females have been known to breed up until about 60 years of age
  • pregnancy can be confirmed by measuring hormones in the blood from about 12 weeks after mating or by ultrasound between 8-20 weeks
  • weekly blood samples are taken from the females to plot their reproductive cycles so breeding can be carefully managed
  • only a single calf is born - twins are very rare
  • adult male elephants (bulls) go through periods of heightened sexual activity, increased aggressive and sexual behaviour, secretions from glands on the side of the head (temporal glands) and urine dribbling. This is known as musth. Musth is usually associated with increased secretion of testosterone and may last for periods of a few weeks to months. Bulls do not have to be in musth to breed successfully
  • there is a report of Asian and African Elephants interbreeding however the calf did not survive

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