Let’s wet its head: the elephant baby boom

The new addition due any day now at Dublin Zoo is testament to a successful breeding programme, which included investment in the facility’s elephant enclosure

Behind-the-scenes footage shows pregnant Asian elephant Yasmin at Dublin Zoo, who is expected to give birth imminently, is growing increasingly restless at night, indicating that she is soon approaching her delivery date. Video: Dublin Zoo

Thu, May 22, 2014, 14:19

There is nothing like a newborn to make a person smile, particularly if they weigh in at 100kg and are nearly a metre tall. Just such an arrival is due any day now as staff at Dublin Zoo await the birth of an elephant calf.

It is one of three due to arrive in the coming two or three months thanks to a successful new breeding effort at the zoo. It is helped by a comfortable, elephant-friendly enclosure that features separate houses for the females and the one lucky male, two swimming pools and plenty of space to wander and explore.

“It is all about their natural habitat, ” says Dublin Zoo director Leo Oosterweghel. He drew on expertise from the US, Australia and the Continent when plans for the enclosure were first drawn up back in 2006.

The zoo had an early breeding success with the birth in 2007 of Asha, the first elephant born at the zoo since its foundation in 1830, and likely the first anywhere in Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age when earlier elephant ancestors roamed northern Europe. A second calf Budi followed in 2008.

The zoo brought in a new bull, Upali, in 2012, and his arrival had an immediate impact. Within months three of the four females in the Dublin Zoo herd were pregnant. The first of three calves is due now and will be followed within a month or two by a second and then a third.

This elephant baby boom arises because of the zoo’s active breeding programme including the investment in the enclosure but not exclusively. The elephants in the herd match what happens in the wild, a matriarch leading other related females. Bernhardine or Dine leads the herd, which includes her sister Yasmin; Yasmin’s daughter Anak; and Asha, Dine’s daughter. Yasmin is about to deliver and Dine and Anak will follow in the coming months. Normal society Zoos used to assemble groups by selecting any convenient young females from other zoos, but often they were completely inexperienced in normal elephant society, says Oosterweghel. These animals are “extremely social” and learn from one another. A wild matriarch would have experience in birthing but also other aspects of social life such as calming down stress, mating, birthing and care for the young.

The animals can only learn such things from others, but many young imported elephants had no such experience. “They had not been to the elephant university, they didn’t know how to be elephants,” says Oosterweghel. “In Dublin Zoo we have elephants that are real elephants, they have the knowledge.”

Another kind of knowledge will come from the newborn and its family in the form of a blood sample. Its DNA profile will go on record at a centre in Rotterdam which holds similar records for Asian – the species Dublin has – and African elephants in zoos across Europe, he says. These records, and related family tree information helps in conservation efforts to protect the genetic diversity of these animals.

There are an estimated 50,000 Asian elephants in the world, but this is only half of the total in 1900, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Only a half to two-thirds of these remain in the wild but conflict with humans and loss of habitat is driving numbers down relentlessly. Diversity Dividing total numbers into the three main species – Indian, Sumatran and Sri Lankan – further reduces diversity, and falling diversity is a major problem for any species, says Prof James McInerney, a professor in the department of biology at NUI Maynooth.

“Genetic diversity gives you robustness,” he explains. “If an event happens like climate change or a new pathogen emerges this can have the capacity to kill individuals of a genetic type. If all animals in a species have the same type it can wipe out an entire species.”

He cites as example the impact of the myxoma virus on wild rabbit populations 20 to 30 years ago. The virus causes myxomatosis and once it appeared here the Irish rabbit population went into freefall. “Eighty to 90 per cent of all rabbits died, but those that could resist the disease survived because there was enough genetic diversity,” says McInerney.

Dublin Zoo supports a number of international breeding programmes, providing funding for conservation activities. It backs a programme for western lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo, the Snow Leopard Trust, the Lowland Rhino Trust and similar efforts for Rothschild giraffes, crested macaques, golden lion tamarins and others. The zoo is part of a European Endangered Species Breeding Programme for almost 50 species that are on display in Dublin.

Zoos have an important part to play in conservation efforts, Oosterweghel argues. They can make a real contribution yet enthrall visitors of all ages who enjoy a trip to see the animals. Cheetahs and Tasmanian devils: Iconic animals dwindling in numbers There is a “perfect storm” ready to crash down on animal species that, because of falling numbers, have been left with limited genetic diversity. Iconic animals such as the cheetah are among them as is the Tasmanian devil and many other species.

“Cheetah numbers have dwindled due to disease and over hunting and the numbers have got so small that brothers are mating with sisters and mothers with children,” says Prof Emma Teeling, of the school of biology and environmental science at University College Dublin. “If you lose all the genetic diversity you lose all the capability to survive.What this means is it is a perfect storm.”

There are efforts to protect the animal in captive breeding programmes but things can go seriously wrong if the diversity is not there, she says.

“If a horrible disease comes long it can wipe them out. This happened to cheetahs in Oregon when one caught a feline corona virus from a domestic cat.”

The cheetah was in a veterinary centre as was the cat. The cheetah was sick when it arrived at the breeding colony.

“The virus had hopped from the cat to the cheetah and nearly 100 per cent of the colony was wiped out,” says Teeling.

Similarly narrow diversity now exists within the Tasmanian devil population, she says. “They are like clones of one another. It is nearly impossible to find diversity.” This has left them at risk of a transmissible facial cancer “and they have absolutely no immunity to it”.

It may be that zoos can become repositories of genetic diversity, Teeling suggests.