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 momentSince 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. Since arriving in Tulsa, Asha and Chandra have been able to conceive three times. But Connolly and his staff are in no rush to put them with Sneezy. Experts from Oklahoma City and Tulsa are still discussing the mating plan. For example, zoo staff could put the females in the pen with Sneezy together or one at a time. If the females go in together, they might feel safer while encountering a male elephant for the first time in their lives. "Because Chandra and Asha have never been apart, that might be a little easier for them,” he said. "I think they’ll be just fine, especially if they have one another.” Despite the discussions and scientific planning, successful mating will come down to nature. Sneezy may not accept Asha or Chandra. The females may not be interested or open to conception. But Connolly said all indications point toward a successful mating. Science and nature aside, man has a role in the mating timeline, too. Asha, Chandra and their offspring will return to Oklahoma City to live in a new exhibit that will be called Expedition Asia. They will be the centerpiece of the $22.7 million exhibit, the largest in the history of the Oklahoma City Zoo, said Tara Henson, a zoo spokeswoman. Construction on the Asia exhibit is set to wrap up in 2012, Henson said, but the elephant habitat has been fast-tracked. It should be finished by August 2010. Construction bids for Expedition Asia are to be opened June 23.
Facing a deadlineIf Asha and Chandra do conceive, they must be moved no later than 18 months into their pregnancies. Otherwise, they will have to stay in Tulsa to give birth. This raises a concern for zookeepers. One elephant could become pregnant much earlier than the other. If that happens, both elephants will return to Oklahoma City. "If one’s pregnant and one’s not, they still would go back together,” Connolly said. "What everyone agrees on is that we don’t want to break that bond between Asha and Chandra.” But if construction is delayed in Oklahoma City, breeding could be delayed in Tulsa. Connolly and others don’t want to wait too long to start breeding Asha and Chandra. They are still young, and their offspring will be vital to the captive elephant population in America. Connolly said his zoo’s female elephants are a constant reminder of the urgency of the situation. Gunda is 58. Sooky is 36. Both are far too old to help their species. "Gunda and Sooky have come and gone as far as breeding,” Connolly said. "I don’t want that to happen to Asha and Chandra.”
• More coverage: Check out past stories about the elephants’ move. www.newsok.com/elephantnation