Tucson's 245-pound baby pachyderm is here

2014-08-21T22:30:00Z 2014-08-22T12:44:51Z Tucson's 245-pound baby pachyderm is hereJohanna Willett Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Reid Park Zoo's pachyderm princess entered the world on Wednesday night to fanfare from her herd.

When 24-year-old African elephant Semba gave birth at 10:55 p.m. in a pen outside of her barn, adult female Lungile and the calf’s 7-year-old brother Punga watched from an adjacent paddock. Sundzu, now the 3-year-old middle child, was with mom for the arrival of his sister, said Vivian VanPeenen, the zoo's education curator.

“They could see the birth and were smelling and trumpeting and reaching through and caressing the baby,” VanPeenen said. “It was lovely. They were very interested in what was happening.”

After almost two years of pregnancy, on Tucson's 239th birthday, Semba delivered a little miracle — no, not a flying elephant — but the first elephant calf born in Reid Park Zoo and the state of Arizona, VanPeenen said. 

The calf's father is the zoo's bull Mabu, who also fathered Punga and Sundzu. The baby joins the three males, her mother and another adult female, Lungile. The herd moved from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to the renovated Expedition Tanzania habitat in 2012.

A name for the bundle of joy will come after zookeepers have spent several days getting to know her. The rest of the herd have names reflecting their African heritage.

“Right now we’re calling her, ‘She’s here! The baby! The calf!’ ” VanPeenen said.

For the next 48 to 72 hours, keepers are giving mom and baby space to bond in the Click Family Elephant Care Center. Only essential staff have access.

On Thursday, the calf weighed in at 245 pounds. Typically, elephant calves weigh between 200 and 250 pounds.

Both mother and daughter appear healthy. Mom is eating, drinking and, well, taking care of business, and baby is nursing, though she is still trying to figure out the finer points.

“It takes a calf a while to figure out where to nurse,” VanPeenen said. “She nursed within the hour. She walks up to mom and fumbles. ‘Do I nurse here or there?’ But she’s doing great.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Semba spent time on exhibit with the rest of the herd, chowing down but moving slowly. At about 10:35 p.m., this pregnancy pro began demonstrating signs of active labor — stretching, walking backward, laying down and extending her tail. Twenty minutes later, with no human help, the zoo welcomed Semba’s third little one, who stood up within minutes.

The gender of the calf was unknown until her birth, but there was some girl talk. At a baby shower in June, both a Plinko-style game played by guests and Mabu's pick of a pink stick instead of a blue one predicted a girl. 

There will be another celebration when the calf goes on exhibit for the public, which could be in roughly two weeks. That depends on the strength and health of calf and mother, VanPeenen said. 

In future days, keepers will give the two elephants additional space in a behind-the-scenes area and eventually introduce the rest of the herd. 

For Sundzu, who VanPeenen calls, “a bit of a mama’s boy,” zoo staff have gradually increased his time away from mom to help him adjust to his new role as big brother, and he recently gave up nursing. Young, male elephants typically stay with mom for eight to 15 years, and females never leave.

The zoo plans to keep mother and daughter together, and there are still several years before Punga and Sundzu begin showing bachelor-pad-worthy tendencies that make them suitable for mating at other zoos.

The Expedition Tanzania habitat was built to support breeding elephants. The three adult elephants were rescued in the wild from culling in Swaziland and were transported to San Diego in 2003. 

“We are doing this for the future of elephant population and conservation worldwide,” VanPeenen said. “We are thrilled to have one more baby elephant in the world instead of one less.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@azstarnet.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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