Syracuse — As two of Syracuse’s beloved Asian elephants headed outside Friday morning at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, there was a buzz in the air from the crowd gathering in the viewing area.
Underneath a female named Mali jogged a tiny pair of fuzzy babies, trying to keep up.
Tiny is relative of course; each of the baby elephants weighs over 215 pounds.
It’s the first known successful birth of twin elephants in the United States, said zoo Director Ted Fox.
Twin births are very rare among elephants. They only account for 1% of elephant births worldwide, he said. Ultrasounds must be done internally, through the rectum, and thus can’t show the full image the way human imaging can. The Syracuse staff was surprised when a second calf was born 10 hours after the first on Oct. 24.
“We get images of a little bit of the spine, or the top of the head, or some of trunk. Mostly you’re just trying to detect that the pregnancy is moving along as you want it to,” Fox said.
“There probably was a slight chance that you’d see two trunks, but it would have to be at the exact right time,” he explained.
In hindsight, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t know a second was on its way.
“Would we have done anything different? I think the veterinary staff would’ve been more nervous. Every half hour that would have passed they would gotten more and more nervous,” Fox said.
Fox said there have been three other twin elephant pregnancies in the United States. But they either resulted in a miscarriage, still births or a calf who didn’t survive due to complications after birth.
On Friday, Mali and the calves walked side-by-side out to the paddock with the grandmother, Targa. At 25, this was Mali’s fourth pregnancy.
“This is a third generation family unit which is just like it would be in the wild. The grandmother takes a huge part in taking care of the calves,” Fox said.
They had some concerns that Mali would reject the second calf.
Elephants in the wild have evolved to have single births. Mali’s second calf was born so much later after the first, with a slowed heart rate and breathing. Fox said it took the veterinary team about 20 minutes to get him stabilized.
None of the experts in the elephant community seemed to know how it would play out, he said. “We were all on pins and needles to see if she would care for them equally.”
Mali seemed slightly anxious at first. She was hearing the calves, smelling them, it was obvious they were hers, Fox said.
“But very quickly, within hours, you could see that if one was laying down, she’d care for the other. If something scared them, she’d comfort them.”
“There is no difference in how she’s taking care of them,” he said.
Like human babies, elephants lose about 10% of their birth weight in the first couple weeks. The first calf weighed 220 pounds at birth; the second weighed 237 pounds. Both are just about back to their birth weights.
Soon, the babies will be reintroduced to their father, Doc, and the rest of the elephant herd. The zoo staff has been cautious in doing this too soon given the unique situation.
But Doc has always been especially good with calves, Fox said. He’s always been extremely gentle, so this reunion could happen in the next month or so, Fox added.
The two new additions bring the zoo’s elephant population to eight. The zoo is one of only eight accredited breeding facilities for the endangered Asian elephant population. Only an estimated 20,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild.
Visitors will be able to see the elephant twins at the Helga Beck Asian Elephant Preserve from 11 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 2:30 p.m. daily, according to county officials. Visitors can also see the elephants indoors at the Pachyderm Pavilion viewing.
Justin Sayles, a county spokesperson, said the twins do not yet have names. They will have a naming competition in the coming weeks, he said.