Thursday, July 09, 2009

Zoo tragedy as elephant mum kills her baby

July 9th, 2009
Sydney Morning Herald

Asali is a nervous elephant by nature and unfamiliar with baby elephants by circumstance. During her 21-month pregnancy, the staff at the Memphis Zoo in the US worried about how she would take to motherhood.

Within minutes after Asali, 23, gave birth late on Monday night to the first baby elephant in the zoo’s 103-year history, their fears vanished.

“Instantly, like a switch flipped, she became a good mom,” curator Matt Thompson said.

But on Wednesday, the joy over the much-anticipated birth turned to horror.

The female baby, shaky on her feet, stumbled in the zoo exhibit area and Asali tried to help the calf get back up.
Somehow, the mother’s tusk injured her baby. Zookeepers worked frantically to separate the mother from the calf, perform first aid and transport the baby to the zoo hospital.

But the injuries were too severe and the baby died at 11am, about an hour after she was gored.

“Everyone here at the Memphis Zoo is deeply saddened by this turn of events,” said Chuck Brady, the zoo’s president. “We mourn this loss alongside Asali.”

The pregnancy was a result of the zoo’s continued participation in plans by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to grow the captive population of elephants. This plan, known as the Species Survival Plan, outlines the management and development of healthy elephant herds in US

Work began to get Asali pregnant through artificial insemination in 2002. It took five attempts before there was a successful pregnancy, and each procedure cost between $US10,000 and $US15,000, Brady said.

After a pregnancy of one year, nine months and 15 days, followed by about 20 minutes of hard labour, a “startled” Asali gave birth under a full moon to the female calf at 10.23pm on Monday.

The staff worried about Asali’s reaction.

“She could be scared to death of it, she could be aggressive,” Thompson said.

Asali was neither. Her maternal instincts kicked right in.

“She acted like she’d had two or three babies before. She was using her feet to position it properly. It would wander off over towards one side of the exhibit, she would cut it off and herd it back,” Thompson said. “She knew exactly what to do.”

The calf was estimated to weigh about 220 pounds.

“It was quite a beautiful, wonderful thing to see,” said zoo spokesman Drew Smith, who taped the birth.

Now, the worry is how Asali will react to her baby’s death. In the wild, elephants have been observed mourning their dead.

Zoo officials said on Wednesday afternoon that veterinarians and keepers were caring for Asali, who would remain off exhibit until a later date.