LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (July 7, 2004) -- The Walt Disney World Resort's animal care team welcomed a 230 pound bundle of joy to Disney's Animal Kingdom earlier this week. The female African elephant calf arrived Tuesday evening to join its 18-year-old mother Vasha after 22 months (gestation) in the womb. Kianga is her name, which means "Sunshine" in Swahili.
Both Kianga and her mother appear to be doing well according to veterinarians and elephant managers, who are cautiously optimistic about the calf's likelihood for survival. The first-time mother experienced a very short labor. With assistance from the animal care team, the newborn became comfortable using her "newly-discovered" legs and began nursing successfully from Mom soon after her birth. She is already feisty and very active.
"African elephants are endangered and difficult to breed, and having a successful birth is a significant event both for the species and for our talented and experienced team of elephant experts who have been working on this breeding program for more than five years," said Dr. Beth Stevens, vice president of Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park. Vasha, who is on loan from the Dallas Zoo, became pregnant through natural breeding on October 4, 2002, when she mated with Jackson, a bull here on breeding loan from the Pittsburgh Zoo. This arrangement is part of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) Elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP), a consortium of zoos and wildlife parks working cooperatively to conserve elephants.
"The next critical milestone is for Kianga to continue the bonding process with her mother who will teach her important lessons and protect her as she is introduced to the heard," said John Lehnhardt, animal operations director for Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park. Going forward, the focus of the elephant managers and veterinarians at Disney's Animal Kingdom will be on the health and welfare of Kianga and her mother.
In the near future, Guests will be able to see the Kianga's progress on camera monitors at Rafiki's Planet Watch at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It will be several weeks before the calf and her mother will join other elephants on the savanna.
Lehnhardt noted that breeding African elephants is a challenging process, so it is especially exciting that this is the second African elephant to be born at Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park. A male calf, Tufani, was born in May 2003 and has gained nearly 600 pounds in its first year of growth. Lehnhardt said that because many of the elephants giving birth in zoos and wildlife parks are first-time mothers -- just as several of the elephant cows at Disney's Animal Kingdom are -- it is not unusual for the animals (both in the wild and in wildlife parks) to lose their first calf, either through a still birth or following the birth. He is optimistic that observation and interaction with Tufani has helped the other elephants gain additional maternal knowledge, thus improving the success rate for the Animal Kingdom breeding program. Two other elephants at Disney's Animal Kingdom are pregnant and due in 2005; one is expected next spring and the other in late winter.
Importance of Breeding Programs
African elephants are classified as endangered species by IUCN, the World Conservation Union, and their future in zoos and wildlife parks is complicated as the aging pachyderm population in North American zoos passes its reproductive prime.
Disney's Animal Kingdom has a breeding program that is part of a cooperative effort coordinated by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) that is focused on sustaining the elephant population in North America.
AZA's Elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP) has called for a five-fold increase in African elephant reproduction efforts -- using both natural and artificial breeding methods -- in order to create a self-sustaining elephant population among North American zoos and wildlife centers.
Preparing for a newborn
In the same way that people prepare their homes for a newborn baby, the staff at Disney's Animal Kingdom took steps to "baby proof" the elephant habitat to ensure that there were no hazards for a young elephant calf. The team has taken a critical look at the habitat and made many changes including planting more trees and shrubbery for shading purposes, closing gaps between boulders, and the installation of a shallow pool behind-the-scenes where the calf will be able to explore the water and learn to swim in a safe environment.
High Tech Pregnancy
Vasha received extensive pre-natal care during her pregnancy. In addition to regular ultrasounds, veterinarians and elephant managers monitored her hormonal levels on a daily basis to help them determine when she would give birth. She has been receiving around-the-clock attention from the animal care team over the past few weeks as the birth became imminent.
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