Elephant breeding a success at Taronga

By Carolyn Barry 8 November 2013
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The third elephant born in 18 months at Taronga Sydney zoo has been named.

THE NEWEST ELEPHANT MEMBER of Taronga Zoo – the first female born from the successful breeding program – has been named Tukta. The Thai name, pronounced took-tuh means ‘doll’ and was chosen by the zoo’s elephant keepers.

“We wanted a name that was of Thai origin to reflect the heritage of our elephants and help educate our visitors about the home range of this magnificent species,” says Simon Duffy, the zoo’s life sciences manager. “I  may be a little biased, but she’s an absolutely beautiful elephant and a doll-like version of her mother.”

Still pinkish, the two-week old calf (born 2 November) is already up and about and quite a character. She loves the water, happily splashing about – and occasionally losing her footing (see video below). Tukta is the third calf born to the four female elephants brought out from Thailand four years to the day before she was born. Two male calves, Luk Chai (meaning son) and Pathi Harn (meaning miracle) were born within the first 18 months.

Tukta’s birth was a world away from the miraculous birth of Pathi Harn, who was nicknamed Mr Shuffles after his nine-day birth drama in March took its toll on his coordination.

Baby Tukta practising her coordination.

So far, the program has had a 100 per cent success rate at breeding, which is impressive since mortality rates are quite high, both in the wild and in zoos, Simon says. The boys were the result of artificial insemination and Tukta is the product of natural mating with the zoo’s only male Asian elephant, Gung. Simon says they owe the succes rate to the preparation undertaken by the zoo and the work of the elephant keepers, who closely monitor and support the animals. They also have a world expert in elephant births, who travels over from Europe to assist with each of the births.

The herd is very close, says Simon, which is unusual because they are not relatives. They share parenting and babysitting duties and the calves are just as happy to find comfort from their aunts.

The program’s aim, aside from breeding more elephants, is to maintain 90 per cent of the genetic diversity of the captive population. Zoo workers achieve this by an intricate system where they match male and female elephants via computer – almost an elephant version of online dating. The keepers encourage natural mating, but will also use artificial insemination for elephants at different locations.

‘Brothers’ Luk Chai and Pathi Harn (left, aka. Mr Shuffles) play wrestling.

“My immediate response is that it is gratifying to see that the Asian elephants at Taronga, and Melbourne, are breeding,” says Chris West, CEO of Zoos South Australia. “Elephant breeding is something of a fine art and requires highly professional input from scientists and vets as well as keepers. This birth addresses an important need for natural behaviours to be expressed and a herd/family structure developed.”

Recent estimates are that there are 30,000-40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and human-elephant conflicts and habitat destruction are likely to seriously threaten elephant survival in the next few decades, Chris adds.