A little before 5:30 one August morning two years ago, workers at the Oakland Zoo began calling colleagues at home to hurry in. For more than a month, staff and volunteers had held a round-the-clock vigil watching a pregnant 24-year-old African elephant on a video monitor, and now they saw the time had come. The elephant, Lisa, heaved to her feet and released an enormous amount of water onto the straw-covered floor. Her 22-month pregnancy was over.
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An elephant birth in captivity is unusual and highly anticipated: of 17 African elephants born in North America since 1995, only 6 survive. (Only 24 of 38 Asian elephants born during the same period survive.) So when the 327-pound baby arrived three and a half hours after Lisa’s water broke, Oakland Zoo workers were ready. They quickly checked the calf ’s heartbeat, took a blood sample and swabbed fluids from his dark gray skin. From his first moments, the calf charmed the keepers, waving his tiny trunk with animation. The skin around his eyes was tinged a light pink, making him look as though he had stayed up too late. In his curiosity to explore his surroundings, the calf strained against the two yellow fabric strips slung under his belly to help him stand. “Lisa touched and smelled the calf and watched to see what would happen,” recalls the Oakland Zoo’s elephant manager, Colleen Kinzley. “She was very excited.”
The staff named the baby Dohani, Swahili for “smoke,” in honor of his father, Smokey, who lived at the Oakland Zoo until he died of chronic wasting disease earlier that year. “From the very first moment that Lisa had the calf with her, we could not have hoped for it to have gone better,” reports Kinzley. Lisa appeared to adapt to motherhood, following her baby everywhere, often touching him. Then, on the 11th day, keepers found Dohani dead on the floor of the elephant room with a puncture wound to the chest. Lisa stood over his body for hours, refusing to move.
This tragedy highlights the challenge of breeding elephants in captivity. Was Dohani’s loss just an accident, perhaps the result of an inexperienced 9,000-pound mother misjudging her strength while nudging her calf? Or had something spooked Lisa and caused her to impale Dohani? Could the zookeepers have prevented Dohani’s death, perhaps by teaching Lisa a broader array of parenting skills?
Such questions have broad importance because of predictions that North America’s captive elephant population simply can’t sustain itself. If current trends continue, in 50 years there will be only four female African elephants young enough to breed at zoos and parks, according to a 2000 study by Robert Wiese, director of animal collections at Texas’ Fort Worth Zoo. (About 225 African and 284 Asian elephants now reside in North America.) “The Wiese study woke up the elephant community to how much work and how little time we have,” says Janine Brown, a reproductive physiologist for the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park.