YASMIN woke at 4am on February 17. Her daughter, sister and nine-month-old niece were asleep but the commotion soon woke them. Elephants give birth at night, so Gerry Creighton and his team at Dublin Zoo use infrared TV cameras to keep an eye on them. Labour can continue for hours but Yasmin’s baby arrived 30 minutes after the waters broke. The little calf was on his feet an hour later. Aunt Bernhardine acted as midwife, standing over the new arrival lest the two boisterous youngsters bump into him in their excitement. Mother and aunt removed the afterbirth and cleaned the baby with their trunks.
The birth came earlier than expected but staff had ample warning, thanks to a South American insect. Taking blood samples to check hormone levels is not easy; elephants, just like people, hate needles. Although Charles Darwin was bitten by a triatomid bug in South America and suffered from Chagas disease for the rest of his life, these insects are not all bad; they provide elephant blood samples in Dublin. A larva is placed on the patient’s back where it gorges itself on blood. A local anaesthetic, administered with its proboscis, prevents the victim from feeling pain. When the bug is removed, the blood is extracted from it and the insect returned, unharmed, to its box.
Most herd animals flee when danger threatens. A mother giving birth can’t run so she seeks out a secluded location. Elephant females, however, have little to fear. The tanks of the animal kingdom are big enough to stand their ground and surround a female in labour, keeping enemies such as lions at bay. Births are social occasions, with grannies, aunties and siblings greeting the new arrival. In Yasmin’s case, there were four in the welcoming party. The youngster is the second born in Dublin in a year and the first male member of the zoo’s herd.
Elephants are almost human. As with us, physical contact and body language are important to them. Sensitive creatures, they form long-term relationships. But they have their down-side; they can be temperamental, prone to tantrums andare disgustingly noisy eaters.
We humans are destroying the ecosystem on which we depend. Elephants, likewise, make excessive demands on theirs. Such is the destruction of trees in the parks of Africa that the great beasts may have to be culled for their own good.
The planning for Dublin’s ambitious Asian elephant project began over 10 years ago. In those days, the zoo had two female elephants, Judy and Kirsty, both beyond breeding age. Nor was there enough space for a herd. Consultants were engaged and architects appointed. The facility they designed would have 10,000 square metres of outdoor space and 400 square meters indoors. Bathing pools, innovative feeding facilities and sand under foot, several metres deep, were incorporated in the scheme.
Europe’s most advanced elephant accommodation would take two years to construct. A new home had to be found for Judy and Kirsty. Neunkirchen Zoo obliged and, in September 2005, the pair left for Germany. Then the builders got to work. Three elephants arrived from Rotterdam and, in July 2007, Bertie Ahern opened their new home.
As with humans, kinship is immensely important to elephants. Females and youngsters live in extended family groups, usually led by grannies. Bernhardine rules the roost here. All of the Dublin animals were fathered by Alexander, who lives in Rotterdam Zoo; Bernadine and Yasmin, were already pregnant when they left for Dublin. Alexander, however, was not upset by their departure; bull elephants lead solitary lives.
The new calf will remain at home for about seven years. Then he will go to boarding school. Males, as they reach maturity, leave their natal herds, some joining bachelor groups in which they undergo the next phase of their education. There’s a herd in Seville and, all going well, the young Dubliner will be sent there. When he’s about 15 years old, the stud-book holders will decide what he does next. One day, hopefully, he too will become a breeding bull.
The lively little baby is now on show to the public at Dublin Zoo.