In the closing hours of Wild Wonderland on the eve of Christmas Eve, a wondrous event occurred at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. A female African Elephant named Mbali, one of 11 elephants rescued from culling in Swaziland, Africa, and brought to the U.S. nearly a decade ago, became a mother. Mbali gave birth to her first calf, a female, on Sunday, Dec. 23 at approximately 9 p.m.
The African Elephant birth is the second in the zoo’s history, and the first born in Tampa from the rescued herd. The newborn, sired by Sdudla, a Swaziland bull, is significant to the population because the calf introduces new DNA into the gene pool of elephants managed in North America, which averages three or four births each year.
Photo credit: Dave Parkinson / Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo
“The birth of this calf demonstrates the maturity of our African elephant care and conservation program,” said Dr. Larry Killmar, VP and director of animal science and conservation. “Our elephant facilities and experienced staff allow the Zoo to contribute to sustainability strategies for this species, furthering elephant conservation worldwide.”
An elephant’s gestation is as long as 23 months. Although the newborn has yet to be weighed, calves are normally 200 or more pounds at birth, and stand just hours after being born. If all goes well with mother and calf, it is the Zoo’s goal to keep the herd together in their natural social structure, with access to the main outdoor yards in the near term.
The newborn calf has not yet been named, but the Zoo has extended an invitation to the Reilly family in Swaziland, to select an appropriate name, in honor of their leadership in establishing three national parks for wildlife conservation in that country.
“The elephant care program here at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo focuses on each animal’s well-being, in addition to health and nutrition, so that future generations know what to do to raise families that thrive,” said Craig Pugh, CEO/executive director. “Successful elephant families are the building blocks for species survival.”
In 2003, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, together with San Diego Zoo Global, rescued 11 elephants from Swaziland, Africa, where they were scheduled to be culled (killed) due to park overpopulation. Four of those elephants arrived at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and seven went to San Diego. Although three of the original four currently reside in Tampa, the fourth, a bull named Msholo, relocated to San Diego Zoo Global on breeding loan in 2009.
Mbali, pronounced (um-bal-ee), is approximately 19 years old (wild born in 1993). She is the smallest of the adults, however still weighs 6,500 pounds. The Zoo’s herd also includes Sdudla (Swazi bull), Matjeka (Swazi cow) and Ellie (the herd’s first matriarch). The Zoo’s first born elephant, a male named Tamani (born to Ellie in 2005 through artificial insemination), relocated earlier this year to Birmingham Zoo on at the recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Program (SSP).
Although the elephant population in some areas of Africa is abundant, populations are under threat from human-elephant conflict, poaching, disease and loss of habitat. In addition to conservation efforts with this species here at home, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has supported acquiring additional land, anti-poaching programs and public education in Swaziland. Results to date include expansion of the Mkhaya Game Reserve by 10 percent, to promote survival of thousands of animals protected there.
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is among a group of 41 wildlife institutions accredited by the AZA that manage African Elephants. The Species Survival Plan is designed to carefully maintain a healthy, self-sustaining population that is genetically diverse and demographically stable.