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The African Elephant Is Slowly Slipping Away

Despite many sad setbacks, the Oakland Zoo and others persevere in efforts to breed the endangered species.

November 19, 2001|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OAKLAND — At 5:22 a.m. on Aug. 30, Colleen Kinzley, the elephant keeper at the Oakland Zoo, noticed the water. When a pregnant 8,000-pound African elephant's water breaks, there tends to be a lot of it. This was the moment the zoo had long been planning for: Lisa, a 24-year-old cow, was going to be a mother again. Elephants are slow breeders, with a gestation period of almost two years, and usually don't have another calf for two more years.

Their slow reproduction rate is one factor in the elephant's status as an endangered species, in zoos as well as in the wild. In their natural habitat there are fewer than 500,000 African elephants--down from 1.3 million 30 years ago--and fewer than 50,000 of their smaller Asian cousins. U.S. zoos hold fewer than 400 elephants, a population that is shrinking so fast that some experts fear that even seeing the noble pachyderm in zoos will someday be a rarity. Unless, that is, zoos can figure out how to breed the highly intelligent but reproductively mysterious animals.

The Oakland Zoo is one of a handful of institutions in the country that has had any luck breeding African elephants, the largest land animal in the world. Unfortunately, most of that luck has been bad.

In 1995, for example, Lisa became the first African elephant to give birth in a zoo in a dozen years. The staff had no idea she was even pregnant. It's hard to notice a couple of hundred extra pounds on an animal that weighs as much as two Ford Explorers. Still, the zoo was happy to discover that its male elephant, Smokey, was one of the few African bulls in the country to demonstrate any stud potential.

Seventeen days later, the zookeepers were even more impressed with Smokey. Donna, another cow, also gave birth. Donna seemed to readily take to motherhood, nudging the calf to stand, but it never did. Doctors discovered that the calf had a displaced hip. The animal was put to sleep.

Meanwhile, Lisa was not proving to be such a good mother to her calf, which was named Kijana. Elephants are social animals, learning much of their behavior from the herd, and Lisa had spent most of her life in a zoo with no older females. She was rough with the calf and pushed it away instead of letting it nurse; the keepers decided to raise Kijana by hand. Eleven months later, Kijana came down with a herpes virus and died.

In 1998, both females were pregnant again. Both miscarried. The following year, Smokey impregnated Lisa for a third time. The zoo built a special birthing pen: a 12-foot-long, 8-foot-high cage of widely spaced steel beams that would let the keepers have close contact with the elephant but prevent the animal from being able to attack or injure the handlers--no small concern since elephant training is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

The birth of an African elephant is a rare thing. Before August, only 30 African elephants had been born in the U.S., the first in 1978. Never before, however, had a zoo tried to deliver a baby elephant through a barrier. Keeping elephants and their handlers apart--a practice called protected contact--is a trend that has been sweeping U.S. zoos in the last decade, designed to provide greater safety for both the animal and its handlers.

Lisa was pregnant for 22 months, and during the last year Kinzley trained the elephant to walk into the cage by rewarding her with treats, such as golf-ball-size pieces of watermelon. "We have to make it worth their while," she says.

Finally, after five hours of labor, Lisa gave birth to a 320-pound male elephant. The zoo named it Dohani, Swahili for smoke, in honor of the father, Smokey, who died in March at age 29. The zoo staff made up a poster announcing "It's a boy" with a picture of the calf taking its first unsteady steps. The photo shows the 3-foot-6 animal, all ears and trunk, cuter than any Babar doll. Eleven days later, the calf was dead.

*

In 1991, visitors were watching the Oakland Zoo's herd of African elephants lumber about their 2-acre grassland enclosure when the largest of the pachyderms walked up to Lorne Jackson, who was in the corral cleaning up. The big elephant was Smokey, then a 19-year-old bull, 12,000 pounds and still growing. Jackson had been the elephant's trainer for 15 years.

"Step back," Jackson commanded, as he had many times before. Instead, Smokey whacked Jackson over the head with his trunk, killing his keeper.

"It was no accident," says Joel Parrott, the zoo's executive director. "It's not the elephant's fault. Any elephant in Africa will try to kill you. They are the dominant animal in their ecology. They have no predators; they are the dominant animal because of their size. ... In a captive environment, you have the same dominant attitude. You don't euthanize them for that. But we decided to put in a system so our keepers would never be killed again."

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