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Photo: Greig Tonkins
Birth of the elephant calf

We knew the birth was imminent as we’d received results from a blood test indicating Thong Dee’s progesterone levels had dropped to what we call baseline. So from Saturday 9 July we started overnight watches with two keepers staying overnight to watch via cameras and monitor Porntip’s progress.

In the lead up to Sabai’s birth in 2016, I was on the first overnight watch with Josie. That night there was no labour behaviours observed and it was a very uneventful night. The next day Sabai was born in the afternoon with very little warning. The first night of Porntip’s overnight watch was very different. From 10pm we began to observe a number of behaviours associated with labour, a lot of agitation, posturing in different ways and occasionally pushing against the wall.

By 2am you can really talk yourself into the fact that it might happen at any moment, but by 3am Porntip laid down and went to sleep and that was the end of the excitement for that night. The next few evenings were very similar, with labour behaviours observed throughout the night but the calf still hadn’t arrived.

On the fifth night of the overnight watch, following a rotating cast of elephant team members Greig and I settled in for another long evening. Though something did seem just slightly more intense about her behaviour and the posturing and pushing seemed to start a little sooner that night. We were joined by the newest member of our team Christina, eager to come and watch for what she intended to be a couple of hours but was soon addicted to watching this, our very own reality TV show, where at any moment something might happen, so she ultimately couldn’t leave.

There was a lot of moving around from Porntip and more posturing, pushing and stretching. It was early morning, Christina went to have a nap in her car, and Porntip lay down shortly after at around 2am, much like her routine on previous nights, and appeared to go to sleep. Surely that couldn’t be it. Then at 3:01am she abruptly sat up and began to posture and stretch. It was hard to see from the camera angle but Greig and I were trying to work out if we could see a bulge under the tail or not, as this is what you will see immediately prior to birth. At that moment Christina came back in the door as if she had a premonition. It was definitely about to happen and we all got our phones out to try and call everyone on the team to come in.

I was just telling Bradd to get in because it was about to happen when I had to correct myself, it had happened. Porntip sat up briefly on her front legs, both rear legs off the ground and gave one last push and the calf was delivered on to the floor at 3:07am!

There was a lot of vocalising from the cows as they proceeded to back away into the next stall and leave the calf to make her own way to her feet which she did in style. She was a very strong and confident calf from the onset, she only stumbled a couple of times but would recover quickly. The other three next door finally worked up the courage to investigate her further and in a high energy and vocal procession, came back into the stall lead by Thong Dee to get a closer look. Thong Dee was very animated but behaved perfectly and protective as a good ‘aunty’ should. This was a first for Sabai to experience something like this, his ears were out and his tail up pointing to the sky.

This was Porntip’s second calf but she was still quite slow to take charge of the situation, possibly still in a little shock and awe over what had just happened. Her confidence grew and she showed herself to be the attentive mother that we know she is. The rest of the team arrived very quickly on the scene, I think everyone hadn’t slept much the last few nights, staring at the ceiling in anticipation that the phone might ring. Everyone was elated with the new calf the fact it was a female calf. A female was the perfect result to help grow our herd especially with the precious genetics of Perth Zoo’s bull elephant, Putra Mas. The calf has since grown in strength and confidence in leaps and bounds, she is now over three weeks old and has weighed in at 122kg. She is feeding well from mum and usually leads the way out on to exhibit at 10am every day. She is very confident and curious when interacting with the keepers and is especially fond of bath time. We are just waiting on a name now and hopefully it will be something to reflect how strong and confident she is.

By Elephant Keeper, Joel Kerr

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