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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
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 deadline
If 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.”

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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