It was a wild stay for campers at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park over the weekend. On Valentine’s morning, they were woken by the festive trumpeting of the Park’s African elephant herd at approximately 2 a.m. when a calf was born.
“The herd was celebrating,” said Brittany Trawick, San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park elephant keeper. “Elephants are social animals. When a calf is born they let everyone know!”
The unnamed calf’s mother is Ndlulamitsi (Ndlula for short), a name that means “taller than trees” in the SiSwati language. The calf was born in the large elephant field in the presence of the entire herd, now made up of 13 elephants, including the calf’s father and Ndlula’s older offspring, Vus’musi, whose name means “to build a family.”
“We have set up the care of the elephant herd to be as natural as possible, including during a birth,” said Randy Rieches, San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park curator of mammals. “During an impending birth we keep a close eye on the cow and make sure she is in the company of at least one other elephant to provide her with support. In this case she surprised us and had the birth at little earlier than we expected, so she had the comfort of the entire herd, creating a very natural birth.”
At sunrise, the Roar & Snore campers were finally able to see why the elephants had been excited just a few hours earlier. The campers were the first to see the male calf, surrounded by his “aunties” and their calves.
When the keepers arrived a short time later they found the bull and Vus’musi, the herd’s oldest youngster at 6 years old, standing guard a short distance away, acting like a herd would do in the wild.
Rescued by the Wild Animal Park in August 2003, Ndlula and six other adult elephants were to be culled in Swaziland’s Big Game Parks because of elephant overpopulation. A lack of space and long periods of drought created unsuitable habitat for a large elephant population in the small southern African country. Big Game Parks officials felt they had two options: kill this group of elephants or export them to a zoo willing to care for the pachyderms.
At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, elephant studies are underway on nutrition, daily walking distance, growth and development and bioacoustic communication. In Africa, the Zoo has a researcher studying human-elephant conflicts as well as habitat range and use. In 2004, the Zoo committed to contributing $30,000 yearly to Swaziland’s Big Game Parks though 2014 to fund programs like anti-poaching patrols, improved infrastructure and the purchase of additional acreage for the Big Game Parks. In addition, the Zoo supports other elephant conservation projects through donations to the International Elephant Foundation, an organization that funds elephant conservation projects around the world.
The average gestation period for African elephants is 649 days or 22 months. A newborn calf is about three feet tall and averages 250 to 300 pounds. Calves can be weaned at 2 to 3 years old.
An adult African elephant is much larger than its cousin, the Asian elephant. A male African elephant weighs 7 to 8 tons and can stand about 10.5 feet tall at the shoulders. A female can weigh approximately four tons and stand 8.2 feet at the shoulders.
The 1,800-acre San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park is operated by the not-for-profit San Diego Zoo and includes a 900-acre native species reserve. The San Diego Zoo focuses on the conservation of endangered species and their habitats, engages in conservation and research work around the globe, educates millions of individuals a year about wildlife, and maintains accredited horticultural, animal, library and photo collections. The Zoo also manages the San Diego Zoo’s Beckman Center for Conservation Research. The important conservation and science work of these entities is supported in part by The Foundation of the Zoological Society of San Diego.