Sunday, August 03, 2008


....Rose-Tu enjoying a dip at the Oregon Zoo....

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In just a couple of months, Rose- Tu, the Oregon Zoo's pregnant Asian elephant, will be having a baby girl. Probably.

"We're pretty confident it's going to be a girl," said Mitch Finnegan, the zoo's lead veterinarian, "although I'm still not putting any money on it."

The announcement came following analyses of hormone levels in Rose- Tu's blood. Typically, Finnegan says, testosterone levels would be higher if the baby were going to be male. However, he adds, with so few elephants born in captivity, the sample size is fairly small and there is still a bit of room for error.

The much- anticipated addition to the zoo's elephant herd, conceived in late 2006, is due to arrive any time from late August to early October. Tusko, a 13,500- pound, 36- year- old Asian elephant, is the father.

Although Rose- Tu is nearly 20 months pregnant, you'll still need to look closely to spot her "baby bump," Finnegan says. The bulge that some visitors have been noticing is actually "part baby, part breakfast" -- the result of Rose- Tu's abdominal organs shifting to make room for the baby.

"For many wild animals," Finnegan notes, "the signs of pregnancy are a lot less obvious than they are in humans."

In the fall of 2006, Tusko was introduced to Rose- Tu in hopes the two would make a love connection. The zoo monitors the female elephants' ovulatory cycles closely and planned the introduction for the appropriate time.

"We were confident that when we introduced Tusko to the girls, sparks would fly," said zoo Deputy Director Mike Keele, who also serves as the Asian elephant Species Survival Plan coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "From what we saw that day, Tusko was a quite the gentleman, a real 'lady's elephant' -- a true Casanova."

Rose- Tu gets along very well with Tusko and seemed receptive to his advances. Her keepers describe Rose- Tu as playful and highly intelligent; they hope she will be a doting mother.

"The birth of a new baby is the most enriching thing that can happen in an elephant herd," said Keele. "If all goes well, and we hope it will, the rest of the herd will tightly bond and protect the baby as if it were their own. There are some risks associated with being a first- time mother, but we're hopeful."

With more than 30 years of zoo experience, Keele is keenly aware that there is a 30 percent infant mortality rate among captive Asian elephants. There is no reliable data on the infant mortality rate in the wild.

"There can be complications to both mother and calf," said Keele. "A calf may be stillborn or get lodged in the birthing canal. We'll be monitoring her pregnancy very closely."

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for Asian elephants recommended that Rose- Tu be bred with Tusko. The AZA, of which the Oregon Zoo is an accredited member, strives to maintain a sustainable population of the endangered elephants in North America. Currently, birth
rates are lower than necessary to do so. With few bulls and low birth rates -- combined with an aging female population -- the North American elephant population is at of risk becoming extinct.

In the late 1990s, scientists warned zoos that unless a reproductive management program was undertaken, North America was in danger of not sustaining a viable elephant population. Statistics indicate that if females do not become pregnant by the age of 25, their ability to reproduce is
severely diminished.

The Oregon Zoo has a renowned breeding program for endangered Asian elephants. More than 25 elephants have been born at the zoo, beginning with Packy in 1962. From 1994 to 2005, the zoo suspended its breeding program because it lacked the space to house four bull elephants. The zoo could not risk the 50 percent chance of having another male, which would grow up to be a powerful bull elephant with no home to place him.

Rose- Tu, born Aug. 31, 1994, was the last elephant born at the zoo.

Rose- Tu is a popular elephant within the herd and with her keepers. She is always looking to tease her herd mates and shares a strong friendship with Chendra, who is nearly the same age. Rose- Tu is the second smallest elephant in the herd, weighing about 7,600 pounds.

Tusko arrived at the zoo in June 2005 on a breeding loan. He has successfully sired three calves in the past -- two while living in Canada and one in California.

An endangered species, Asian elephants are represented by an estimated 38,000 to 51,000 individuals living in fragmented populations in the wild. Agriculture, deforestation and conflict with humans pose a constant threat to wild Asian elephants.