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Oklahoma City’s elephant pair endure long courtship

CARRIE COPPERNOLL Modified: June 15, 2009 at 4:19 am •  Published: June 15, 2009
After a year of formal introductions, Asian elephants Asha and Chandra are still waiting for some private time with the bull elephant they traveled 90 miles to see.

The Oklahoma City sisters were moved from the Oklahoma City Zoo to the Tulsa Zoo a year ago in hopes that they would mate with Tulsa’s bull elephant, Sneezy. While zookeepers haven’t put the females with Sneezy yet, the outlook is good.

Zookeepers and experts nationwide hope successful pregnancies could help bolster America’s captive elephant population.

"We don’t know if we’ll ever have this opportunity again,” said Mike Connolly, assistant curator of elephants at the Tulsa Zoo.

But nature, science and man must cooperate to take advantage of that opportunity.

Asha and Chandra’s introduction to the two Tulsa Zoo females — Sooky and Gunda — was smooth, Connolly said.

"Everybody was just kind of taking it in stride,” he said. "Elephants come together and drift apart in the wild.”

The Oklahoma City females were given a few days indoors alone, and then all four elephants were allowed to smell each other and touch trunks between the fences. Then they were brought together to meet in a yard away from the public.

Asha and Chandra "immediately came over to our girls,” Connolly said. "They really seemed to want that socialization.”

Though Asha and Chandra haven’t been in the same yard as Sneezy, they have met him. They smelled each other and touched trunks.

Asha and Chandra show interest in Sneezy and jockey for his attention when they’re near him, Connolly said. Sneezy is interested, too. He goes through musth, acting agitated and forgetting to eat.

"His mind is on one thing,” Connolly said, "and it’s getting to those females.”

This was the kind of reaction zoo officials hoped for, Connolly said.

The decision to breed Asha and Chandra with Sneezy came from the experts who manage the Elephant Species Survival Plan, the nationwide breeding program that monitors genetics and the elephant population.

Choosing which elephants to breed to sustain the population is based on a set of rankings. Animals are ranked by how well represented their genetics are in the national pool.

Sneezy has bred with two other elephants in the past, though none of his offspring are still alive. So his genetics still aren’t represented in the captive elephant gene pool, Connolly said.

Asha and Chandra don’t have any offspring. They’re of ideal breeding age and two of the few young females in the country. Asha is 14, and Chandra is 12. Most captive elephants in the United States were imported during the 1950s and ’60s and are now too old to breed.

The right moment
Since Asha and Chandra were paired with Sneezy, Connolly and other zoo staff members have been waiting for the right moment to try to put the elephants together.

The females’ blood is drawn at least weekly and checked for hormones.

Why didn’t Sneezy come to Oklahoma City? The Tulsa Zoo could accommodate two extra elephants in addition to the three there. The Okla-homa City Zoo could only fit Asha and Chandra.

Were Asha and Chandra chosen to breed with Sneezy because the elephants live so close? They were selected for several factors, including that none of the three have living offspring. The geography happened to be convenient.

What’s happening to Asha’s and Chandra’s exhibit while they’re away? Their exhibit is home to a male rhino who happens to be named Chandra.

As Oklahoma City elephants Asha and Chandra settle into their new herd, a hierarchy has taken shape. "They’ve been getting along very well," said Mike Connolly, assistant curator of elephants at the Tulsa Zoo. "It’s going very well. It’s been good for all of them in different ways." Here’s how their roles shake out.

Sooky: The dominant loner.

Gunda: The patient mother figure.

Asha: The outsider always wanting in.

Chandra: The charismatic daughter figure.

More coverage: Check out past stories about the elephants’ move.


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