A (big, big) baby's on the way

May 18, 2014 12:00 am

After 22 long months, Semba — the Reid Park Zoo’s largest female African elephant — is to deliver a calf sometime between June and August. The baby will be her third and will join 7-year-old brother Punga, 3-year-old brother Sundzu and 24-year-old father Mabu in the zoo’s new elephant enclosure. Elephants have the longest gestation period of any land mammal and their delivery is quite different than the human version — starting with the three-foot drop to the ground. Today we celebrate the differences with some facts about how elephants are born and how they live.

Infographic by Tammie Graves, Arizona Daily Star

SOURCES: Reid Park Zoo, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Elephant-world.com, LiveScience.com

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  • Name: Litsemba (leet-sahm-ba), which means “hope” in SiSwati. Her nickname is Semba.

    Species: Loxodonta africana ssp.

    Sex: Female

    Born: 1990

    Estimated age: 24

    Back story

    She was born in South Africa’s Kruger National Park in 1990 and taken to Swaziland in 1994. She arrived at San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park in 2003 and was brought to Reid Park Zoo with her family in March 2012.

    Family ties

    Semba has been bred numerous times with 24-year old African elephant Mabu, a playful, confident bull who enjoys roughhousing with his calves. Semba had her first calf, Punga, in March 2007, and her second, Sundzu, in December 2010. She seems to worry over the whereabouts of her calves, both of whom live at the zoo with her and Mabu.

    All about Semba

    Weight: At approximately 7,000 pounds, she is the largest of the Reid Park Zoo’s females

    How to spot her: She has thick, full hair on her tassel.

    Personality: She used to be the most timid of the group but has become more social. She gets along best with Mabu and will tolerate Lungile, a sweet, subordinate female whom Semba enjoys pushing around at times. But Lungile will baby-sit the calves when Semba wants some time alone. Semba enjoys learning and especially likes the hay pellets trainers use to reinforce her good behavior.

  • • Elephants are the largest of all land animals in the world.

    • The life expectancy for female African elephants is approximately 40 years. The oldest known elephant lived to be 82.

    • The heaviest elephant in the world weighed 26,000 pounds.

    •The word elephant means ivory.

    • It is a myth that elephants are afraid of mice.

    • Elephants love to swim.

    • Elephants are herbivores, meaning they eat plants, not meat.

    • They drink a lot of water – up to 15 quarts at once.

    • Elephants are not specifically more aggressive than other species, but their size warrants respect and dictates that zoos must follow careful protocols to allow the animals to demonstrate natural behaviors safely.

    • They have an excellent sense of smell and hearing but poor eyesight.

    • Generally, one tusk is shorter than the other. That’s the one the elephant uses more often. Just like people are either right or left handed, elephants seem to have a dominant tusk.

    • Elephants eat for up to 16 hours a day. They can consume 300 to 600 pounds of food every day.

    • Elephants run up to 15 miles per hour with at least one foot always on the ground.

    • An elephant's tusks can weigh up to 200 pounds and can grow up to 10 feet long.

    • Females tend to have a new baby every three to five years. Twins are extremely rare for elephants.

    • At 11 pounds, an elephant's brain is larger than that of any other animal.

    • Many elephants in the wild have no tusks. That is because so many with tusks are killed by poachers for the ivory, leaving those without tusks to take care of most of the reproduction.

    • One important way to help protect wild elephants is to never buy or sell ivory - regardless of where it comes from.

    • Reid Park Zoo has only African elephants on exhibit.

  • • During courtship, a male and a female elephant will rub their bodies on each other and even wrap trunks. The females tend to run away from the males and he will have to pursue her. This game of cat and mouse can continue for a long time before actual mating occurs.

    • Males go through periods of “musth,” where hormonal surges create behavior changes. The periods of musth are necessary for natural herd dynamics and successful breeding.

    • Male elephants fan their ears more when they are ready to mate than at other times. This allows them to get their scent out there at a wider distance to attract potential mates.

    • The females are ready to breed when they are about 14 years of age.

    • There is plenty of aggression among the males for the right to mate. Younger ones are usually no match for the strength of the older elephants, which is why they don’t get to mate until they are much older. That tends to make it harder to increase the numbers of elephants.

    • The males rarely hurt each other when they are fighting for the right to mate. Most of the time the younger ones will back away from the older ones. There is speculation that this isn’t out of fear but out of respect and admiration for the elders.

    • Baby elephants are well cared for within their herd. Their own mother as well as the other females will ensure the baby is protected. Babies often follow right behind their mothers when the herd is on the move, with their trunks wrapped around their mother’s tail.

    • Females that don’t have babies will care for the young as if they were their own. This is done so the mothers can feed like they need to in order to produce enough milk for the young. Babies can drink up to 3 gallons of milk every day.

    • Baby elephants don’t seem to have the same survival instincts as other animals. That is why they are so reliant upon their mothers and the other females in the herd. They are fast learners, though, and pick up new skills through observation. Other elephants praise them for doing well and scold them when they don’t follow the rules.

  • It’s uncertain when the baby will go on exhibit to the public. The main concern is the calf’s health, progress and strength. The Arizona Daily Star will keep the public posted on the big news when the calf is born and will go on exhibit.

  • Millions of years ago there were many species of elephants, but today there are only two — the African and the Asian species. African elephants, left, make up the entire herd at the Reid Park Zoo. Here are some comparisons between the two:


    Height: 8.2 to 13 feet (shoulder height)

    Weight: 2.5 to 7 tons

    Head: Rounded with a single dome

    Ears: Larger, reaching up and over the neck

    Trunk: Two finger-like features at the end

    Tusks: Both male and female have large tusks

    Skin: Wrinkly

    Rib count: 21

    Feet: Three nails on each hind foot; four on each front foot

    Highest point: Shoulder


    Height: 6.6 to 9.8 ft.

    Weight: 2.25 to 5.5 tons

    Head: Twin domes

    Ears: Smaller

    Trunk: One finger-like feature at the end

    Tusks: Males have large tusks, females have small tusks or none at all.

    Skin: Smoother, covered with more hair

    Rib count: 20

    Feet: Four nails on each hind foot; five on each front foot.

    Highest point: Back

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    • At birth, an elephant calf typically weighs 230 pounds and stands over 2 ½ feet tall. Baby elephants are nearly blind at birth and rely upon their trunks and their mothers to help them.

    • A newborn elephant can stand up shortly after being born.

    • At first, a baby elephant can only wave its trunk in the air, suck on it or trip over it. Within a week or so it can start picking up small objects and food. No surprise that’s it’s so tricky: That trunk has more than 40,000 muscles in it.

    • Mama elephants have it rough. Their pregnancies last 22 months, longer than any other land animal. And when their giant bundle of joy is born, it will nurse for up to three years, suckling more than 3 gallons of milk a day.

  • When Semba is ready to deliver, a hump will appear under her tail as the calf’s legs, either front or back, move over her hip girdle.

  • The fluid-filled amniotic sac will emerge with the calf inside. As the baby comes out it will be forced forward under Semba’s belly.

  • To finish the delivery, Semba will squat and push her calf out. As it drops to the ground, the amniotic sac will break and large quantities of birth fluid will spill out.

  • The newborn calf will struggle to stand immediately. Once it finds its balance it will be examined by the zoo’s medical and animal care team, but with Semba close by. If all goes well, nursing can begin within the first hour and the baby can start growing. Healthy calves grow about 1 inch a month and gain up to three pounds a day.

  • “We are thrilled to have Semba expecting her third calf. She has lived at our zoo for over two years. Shortly after arriving she and Mabu, the bull, successfully bred. The breeding behavior and impending birth are factors indicating the herd’s overall wellness and comfort in their new exhibit. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to care for Semba and soon her new calf. I can't wait to watch our visitors' faces when they see the new baby!”

    Sue Tygielski, Ph.D.

    Zoo area supervisor and elephant manager

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