After a pregnancy lasting almost 23 months, Shanti, a 24 year old Asian elephant delivered a healthy 385 pound male calf shortly after 2:00 a.m. today at the Houston Zoo’s McNair Asian Elephant Habitat. “The elephant keepers have named the calf Duncan,” said Houston Zoo Large Mammal Curator Daryl Hoffman. “They like the way it sounds,” he added.
Attended by the Houston Zoo’s elephant care team and assisted by the Zoo’s veterinary staff, Shanti delivered the baby at 2:13 a.m. today. “After months of preparation and tender loving care, Shanti’s labor was very brief and the delivery was quick and easy for her” said Hoffman. “The keepers helped the calf to his feet and he was standing on his own within about an hour after his birth,” he added.
“The calf started nursing at 9 this morning,” said Hoffman. “In the first 90 minutes after his first meal we saw him nurse more than 15 times. Duncan has a very good appetite,” added Hoffman. Thai, the baby’s father, is 48 years old.
Immediately after the calf was born, the elephant care team and the Zoo’s veterinary staff performed a neonatal exam. “We weighed and measured the calf and took a blood sample.” said Houston Zoo Chief Veterinarian Dr. Joe Flanagan. “Duncan is almost 40 inches tall at the shoulder,” added Flanagan.
Elephant keepers will keep Shanti and Duncan under a 24-hour watch for the next few weeks. The viewing windows in the barn at the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat are temporarily closed to the public. The windows will reopen to the public after the elephant care team has seen signs that Duncan is well-bonded with his mother and is comfortable in his new home, possibly next week. Duncan is Shanti’s fourth calf.
The 8 members of the Houston Zoo’s elephant care team, assisted by the Zoo’s 4 full time veterinarians and veterinary staff and a core group of Zoo volunteers have been monitoring Shanti closely for the past 11 months. The routine intensified over the past 12 weeks with regular ultrasounds to monitor the baby’s health and blood work to gauge the mother’s progesterone level. Through out the delivery, Shanti was attended by the entire elephant care team and assisted by Zoo veterinarians and Zoo hospital veterinary technicians.
More than 50 volunteers and Zoo staff began a seven-day a week overnight birth watch in late-November. Utilizing a state of the art closed-circuit television system, the birth watch team observed and documented Shanti’s behavior. When blood tests indicated Shanti’s progesterone level had fallen to a low baseline level, members of the elephant care team and veterinarians remained at the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat around the clock watching for indications that labor might begin at any moment.
Birth Preparation Time Line 2012 – 2014
Approximate date of conception March 23, 2012
Progesterone monitoring continues March 23, 2012
Transabdominal ultrasounds begin (2X per month) Sept. 10, 2013
Transrectal ultrasounds begin (2X per month) Oct. 25
Birth watch volunteer training Nov. 13
Biweekly progesterone monitoring begins Nov. 13
Birth watch begins with Zoo volunteers Nov. 23
Biweekly ultrasounds begin Nov. 24
Daily progesterone monitoring begins Dec. 11
Ultrasound frequency increased if required Dec. 11
Elephant keepers join birth watch schedule Dec. 11
About Asian Elephants
Asian elephants are herbivores. At maturity, adult males can grow up to 10 feet tall (measured at the shoulders) and weigh up to 13,000 pounds. Adult females grow up to eight and a half feet tall and will weigh less than males. Amazingly, despite their weight, they are able to walk silently. Elephants are the largest land mammals in the world and among the most intelligent animals on earth. Unfortunately, Asian elephants are also among the world’s most endangered species.
Approximately 300 Asian elephants currently live in North American zoos; however, a number of factors are jeopardizing their sustainability: an aging population, low birth rates and an insufficient number—less than 30—of breeding bulls (male elephants). Also, if cows (female elephants), are not bred by age 25, their reproductive ability is immensely diminished. In the wild, Asian elephants typically live about 45 years.
Fortunately for the endangered species, there has been resurgence among zoos to bolster breeding efforts to help stabilize the population. The Houston Zoo’s Asian elephant breeding program falls under the auspices of the Elephant Species Survival Plan administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
At the turn of the 20th century, more than 100,000 Asian elephants roamed their native habitat. Today, only 35,000 remain in the wild—scattered among pockets of Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, Indonesia and Vietnam. Decades of war, an explosive human population growth and intensive agriculture continue to shrink their once abundant territories, leading to human-elephant conflict and leaving elephants prone to poaching and starvation. Consequently, the gene pool for future generations of elephants is in a dire situation.