Thong Dee – the elephant child at Taronga Zoo

Sydney Zoo’s Pregnant Elephant – Under-age accident or calf abuse?

A report in The Times newspaper – “Whiff of Scandal as Young Bull Plays the Field” (15th Feb 2008) about Taronga Zoo’s controversially pregnant young female elephant, Thong Dee, takes a new turn. According to the zoo she is ‘8 or 9’ but papers seen by the Born Free Foundation and submitted 2 years ago to the Australian Government in an effort to prevent her recent import along with 8 other animals from Thailand, seem to confirm that she is, in fact, just 6 years and 8 months old.

The zoo reports that she is 5 months pregnant, so her age at conception was actually 6 years and 3 months.

But this isn’t simply a case of ‘oh dear and never mind’.

Research in Africa clearly indicates that female elephants who give birth under the age of 10 run a 50% risk of infant mortality within the first year compared to a 76% success rate for females 10 and over. There are physical as well as psychological concerns. Taronga Zoo has no related, experienced females to ‘allo-mother’ (mid-wife) Thong Dee’s calf and, indeed, Thong Dee herself has not had the education in parenting skills that normal matriarchal elephant society provides.

If successful, her calf will be the first Asian elephant born in Australia ever.

ARAZPA, Australia’s Zoo Association, states that a female should be 9 before breeding and, optimally 12. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, however, the zoo’s spokesman denied the pregnancy was unplanned.

How did this apparent ‘accident’ occur? Do the zoo authorities know what they are doing? Could they not have taken precautions – like keeping Gung, the solitary male, apart from the females to avoid just such an incident? The new elephant enclosure at Taronga Zoo has cost about £20 million, many times the budget of numerous national Wildlife Departments. Its objective is, according to the zoo, to breed elephants to arrest the rapid decline of wild Asian elephants. Having returned from Sri Lanka 2 weeks ago I can confirm that the 3,500 wild elephants in that country are doing well and breeding at the rate of 180-200 calves a year without human intervention. A handful of captive-bred calves in Australia (if that ever happens) are of no consequence to the survival of the species – anyone who thinks otherwise is simply deluded.

Meanwhile a little 6 year old elephant calf – a child – is going through what will almost certainly be a very risky pregnancy. Even the zoo is preparing the public for possible failure by stating that only half under-age pregnancies survive.”

What a mess – and this is supposed to be the best we can do?

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