HOUSTON – The Houston Zoo is preparing to welcome its newest--but not smallest--member. Zoo officials announced Monday that they are expecting a new elephant calf to be born this summer.
26-year-old Shanti, one of the zoo's eight Asian elephants, has been in gestation for about two years. Zoo officials said they are optimistic that the pregnancy is advancing normally and on schedule. Shanti is expected to give birth to a 250-300 pound bundle of joy some time in the next couple months. The zoo said it is a significant move forward for the endangered species.
"It's really exciting for us," said Elephant Zoo Keeper Kim Putnam, who cares for the elephants with her team day in and day out. "Elephants are pregnant for about 2 years, so it's a lot of anticipation building up when we get close to birth and elephants are highly endangered so every single birth that we have is actually helping the same Asian Elephants as a species, which the zoo is all about--our conservation efforts.
Meet Shanti and the Rest of the Family
The zoo’s elephant team has given Shanti nearly 2 years of pre-natal care along with four veterinarians with regular ultrasounds and blood work. Zoo officials say a hormonal change in the elephant's blood will indicate when Shanti is in labor.
"Shanti is our youngest adult female, so she has a lot of energy," said Putnam. "She's really fun to train, really fun to work with. She's a very engaging elephant, and she's a really good mom...She's probably our most attentive mother. She takes a lot of care for her babies."
Meet Shanti--26yrold Asian Elephant @houstonzoo. She is expected to birth a 250-300lbs calf this summer-after 2 years of gestation! @KPRC2Posted by KPRC2 Rose-Ann Aragon on Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Shanti is not a new mother. She gave birth to the zoo's youngest calf, 3-year-old Duncan and also 7-year-old Baylor (named after the College of Medicine team who is working with the zoo to fight off the EEVH virus).
“All of our zoo staff looks forward to any baby born here,” said Lisa Marie Avendano, vice president of animal operations at the Houston Zoo. “But with the opening of our new elephant addition, this is a particularly exciting time to welcome a 250-to-300-pound Asian elephant calf into our zoo family.
KPRC2's Rose-Ann Aragon joined the zoo keepers while they were doing exercises with three elephants, including Shanti and her son Duncan.
A nearby keeper was feeding a large male elephant--the patriarch of the herd.
"This is Thailand. He's actually our oldest elephant here at the Zoo. He just turned 52. He is the tallest Asian male elephant in North America. 10.5ft tall," said elephant keeper Ian Ross.
Thailand, also known as "Thai," is Duncan's father.
"He weighs a little under 12,000 lbs," said Ross.
Meanwhile, Duncan stayed close to his mother. Shanti continued to playfully do tricks with keeper Mandy Rinker. Shanti would speak, lift up her foot, and move on certain commands, of course apples and carrots would follow. Shanti was in a great mood. Putnam said she is preparing for her new family member. Shanti and the newborn calf will need to spend quality time together, sharing important moments.
Kim Putnam - Elephant Keeper at Houston Zoo -- talking about elephant exhibitPosted by KPRC2 Rose-Ann Aragon on Tuesday, June 20, 2017
"We want to make sure that mom and baby are bonding closely right from the outset so we look for first time of nursing, how long the baby is going to be nursing--We make a record of all of those big first nursing is big, first time they stand, first time they lay down, we want to makes sure than mom's interested in baby, which Shanti is really great about," said Putnam. "When they leave that stall for the first time we want to make sure she's waiting for baby to walk with her--that she's attentive and paying close attention."
New & Improved Elephant Paradise
Splashing playfully a nearby pool was Baylor (Shanti's other son) and Tucker, a bold young male and the second largest bull in the herd.
Shanti's motherhood announcement Monday came shortly after the zoo doubled the size of its McNair Asian Elephant Habitat in May, adding a 7,000-square-foot barn custom-built to house the bull elephants, a higly visible boardwalk and a 160,000-gallon pool.
It is an needed upgrade for the growing elephant family.
Meet the elephants:
The endangered species originally came from Asia, dieting on fruits, plants and vegetables. This new habitat includes several man-made cement trees, used for the elephants to utilize and play with.
"The boys like to rub and lean and push up against it," said Jackie Wallace, the zoo's Public Relations Director.
Keepers hide apples, carrots, hay or different scents in the holes of the trees to keep the elephant's minds and moods stimulated.
"We just opened this in May, and with this opening we have now doubled the entire elephant complex from the cow yard to the bull yard," said Wallace. "We now have two barns. One for the boys and one for the girls...But the coolest thing--literally and figuratively is this giant pool."
Elephants takes a splash in new pool at Houston Zoo
How cute is this!! Asian elephants Baylor & Tucker playing in their new home--Houston Zoo doubled the size of the habitat to include this 160,000 pool! Must be nice to take a splash :) Working on the story now -- it will be updated in a couple of hours with the full video & story https://www.click2houston.com/news/click2daily/cick2daily-houston-zoo-set-to-welcome-big-bundle-of-joyPosted by KPRC2 Rose-Ann Aragon on Tuesday, June 20, 2017
"160,000 gallons of water just for these boys to be doing exactly what they are right now," said Wallace. "It's 12 feet deep at the deepest portion...You'll find them wrestling and playing and splashing about. We have these water falls here that they like to drink from, rub on or get a little massage, and as you can see our guests love it as well."
"They kids get to experience animals that they wouldn't see," said Kit Martinez who stood outside the elephant pool with her children. "I love that when we see this, we know the elephants are being taken care of--and they're close."
A Need to Protect Endangered Asian Elephants
Since 2007, the Houston Zoo has worked with conservationists in Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia, to help protect this endangered species.
"Since our work in Borneo, the elephant population on the island has doubled," said Wallace.
The zoo also funds for the application of collars on wild elephants, an effort led by elephant conservationist, Nurzharfarina "Farina" Othman and her team in Asia. The zoo said the collars allow for valuable research that helps protect elephants as they make their way through forests.
Farina also worked with farmers that grow palm oil. Palm oil is an ingredient in many foods and cosmetics. However, the zoo said the production of palm oil can put elephants at risk if not farmed with responsible cultivation practices that are wild-life friendly.
The transformation of untouched forests into palm oil plantations have resulted in deforestation. Fortunately, there are a number of producers who are working to protect the native animals.
"The Houston Zoo encourages people to protect elephants in the wild by supporting companies that use responsibly sourced palm oil, increasing demand for palm oil that is grown and produced without destroying the forested homes of elephants," Zoo officials stated.
“Elephants are not moving through palm oil plantations to raid crops but they are using it to reconnect to their surrounding habitat because the corridors that have been left for them are too small,” says Nurzhafarina (“Farina”) Othman, Houston Zoo elephant conservationist and researcher in Borneo.
Wallace said they will continue to partner with the team in Borneo.
"Every membership, a portion of those funds go directly to wild work," said Wallace.
For more information on the Zoo you can visit HoustonZoo.org. The zoo offers free admission the first Tuesday of every month.