Securing a shared future for wildlife and people

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An infant male Western Lowland Gorilla made his public debut at Taronga today as the Zoo also announced its first-ever artificial insemination (AI) of an Asian Elephant.

Experienced Gorilla mother, Mouila, gave birth to a healthy little male named Mahale on August 18 and international scientists confirmed late last week that the Zoo's Asian Elephant matriarch, Porntip, had conceived using sperm from Melbourne Zoo's bull ‘Bong Su' on the first attempted AI in May this year. Both species are endangered.

While Mouila's infant, Mahale, which means ‘an event' in Swahili, went on public display today after the usual settling in period with the Zoo's gorilla family, Porntip's baby is still just a few millimetres in size and not due until early 2010.

Another female Asian Elephant, Thong Dee, has already conceived naturally with the zoo's bull elephant, Gung, and is expected to deliver her calf in mid-2009.

Mouila's baby was born in the early morning of 18 August and was discovered by keepers arriving at 6:30am who found Mouila in her night nest with her new baby clinging tightly to her.

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The Zoo's Director, Guy Cooper, said: "This is exciting and very encouraging news for gorillas and elephants and continues a series of great successes by Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos in breeding and research with endangered wildlife this year including the first collection and insemination of a Black Rhinoceros oocyte (egg) and the breeding and release of endangered Booroolong Frogs and Regent Honeyeaters."

"With Gorillas under intense pressure from jungle clearance and the bush meat and pet trades, as well as diseases like Ebola, this is a great result from one of the world's most respected breeding groups. It is a tribute to our keepers' great husbandry skills, and provides a level of insurance and understanding of the species which will be invaluable in global efforts for these remarkable apes."

Porntip's pregnancy was confirmed on August 22 by international reproduction specialists from the Berlin-based Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. The Institute's Dr Thomas Hildebrandt confirmed that the procedure in May this year had been successful on the first attempt, following Melbourne Zoo's successful insemination of one of their Asian Elephants earlier this year.  Dr Hildebrandt's team is regarded the world's best elephant reproductive biology team having been involved in over 20 successful AI pregnancies with elephants.

Mr Cooper, said: "These are outstanding results for the Australasian Conservation Management Program for Asian Elephants, with three successful planned pregnancies in less than two years.  While all pregnancies are yet to run full term, this result clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of the first-ever regional conservation program for Asian Elephants. The expertise in our zoos is rapidly delivering great results for wildlife.

"Zoos' expanding application of scientific research and the recent announcement of The Taronga Foundation's Field Conservation Grants  to projects from Botswana to Cape York shows that Zoos are becoming one-stop conservation experts with skills ranging from regional and global breeding programs and critical conservation research to specialised husbandry knowledge and re-introduction capability."

"Our capacity to work with a wide range of government, conservation and scientific agencies combined with our ability to share knowledge through public education programs for over 120,000 school students and 1.5 million visitors is unique."

Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos care for 4,000 animals from over 350 species, provide conservation messages to over 1.5 million visitors and conservation education to over 100,000 school students annually. The best time to see Mahale is at the feeding sessions (11.30 am and 2:00pm).

Mahale the Western Lowland Gorilla:

Taronga Zoo's head Primate Keeper, Louise Grossfeldt, said: "Zoo breeding programs are critical for helping to insure against rapidly declining numbers in African countries where the bush meat trade, poaching and forest clearing continue to threaten the long-term survival of the species. 

"Mouila, which means ‘African Fantasy', is our most experienced female. She lavishes attention on her offspring and is also mother of two other females in the group, ‘Kriba' and five year old ‘Mbeli'. The baby was sired by the magnificent silverback, Kibabu."

"We are all exceptionally pleased with the safe birth of this baby. The natural family structure and Kibabu's excellent leadership help us show visitors the remarkable and calm nature of these gentle vegetarians while explaining how important it is to help ensure a sustainable future for these proud apes.

"The infant is the second born into the group this year. Zoo-based breeding groups like Taronga's are increasingly vital following the recent announcement by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the International Primatological Society Conference in Edinburgh this month that almost half of the world's 634 primate species face extinction.  Ebola Virus alone has reduced wild Western Lowland Gorilla numbers by 90% in some areas.

"This is Mouila's 6th  infant and the 14th baby sired by ‘Kibabu', Taronga's impressive Silverback.  Kibabu is a close-to-perfect leader and protector and he makes sure the inquisitive juveniles and aunties give the new mother and baby space and settling time," said Louise.

Asian Elephants

Taronga is part of the regional Conservation Management Plan for Asian Elephants which have dwindled to as low as 33,000 across their Asian range states.

Besides establishing a self-sustaining regional breeding herd with other regional zoos, Taronga has developed a comprehensive public education program to raise awareness of the plight of elephants and is working with Melbourne Zoo and through The Taronga Foundation on 11 Elephant support programs.

Taronga and Melbourne Zoos Elephant Support Programs
  • Indonesia - Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra with FFI
  • Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust Sri Lanka youth awareness
  • CITES MIKE - Monitoring illegal killing of Elephants
  • Nepal - project assisting Government to micro-chip domestic elephant herd.
  • Cambodia - Provided FFI with DNA baseline for study of wild elephants.
  • Commitment to wild Elephant Management (Thailand); Kui Buri National Park
  • National Elephant Veterinary Health Centre (Mahidol Uni, Thailand)
  • Mahout Support Program to introduce Trust-based management techniques
  • Australasian Cooperative Conservation Plan for Asian Elephants
  • Contributed to DNA database of domestic herd across Thailand
  • Staff training and exchange from Thailand
Additional Programs
  1. Taronga Education Centre also teaches a NSW high-school level program on Rainforests and related wildlife, including Elephants.

  2. Taronga and Melbourne Zoos are also participants in the Berlin-based Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research reproductive program which has resulted in many successful births in zoo-based elephant herds world-wide.

    These successes have great potential for application with other endangered species.  The IZWR's Director, Dr Thomas Hildebrandt, said: "Taronga is also the first in the region to make it possible to transfer semen from other countries, improving the genetics for the entire region, which is quite important.  This was very impressive management by Australian authorities which understand the risks of delay.  This means genetic material for future AI programs can be brought from elephants in other countries without having to import the animals for breeding."

  3. Pioneered use of Thermal imaging technology to manage the health care of older elephants, with potential applications to other fauna.

  4. Participating in global program x-ray elephants' feet to provide a national database for footcare in elephants.

  5. Taronga Western Plains Zoo facilities were chosen by Australasian zoo association to provide care and management for two ex-circus elephants when the circus sought support in their on-going care.

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