Elephant

Happy first birthday, Ajabu: Looking back on a year of milestones for our baby elephant

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Ajabu enjoys a mud wallow session./Chandra Brooks

It was 7 a.m. on Saturday, May 15, 2016 – the Zoo was just waking up and keepers were filing in, when two elephant keepers shook the barn with squeals of joy as they discovered a little grey bouncing baby boy. Just hours before, elephant Mlilo had delivered a 175-pound, 3-foot-tall calf to our somewhat surprise.

The baby, already standing, nursing and totally unfazed, would be the first African elephant calf born in a U.S. AZA-accredited Zoo in more than two years.

The keepers quickly executed their, “Surprise! A baby’s been born!” procedures to ensure the vet and animal care teams were immediately aware of the newborn.

Baby Ajabu at just three days old.

Baby Ajabu at just three days old.

But, the one who knew exactly what she was doing, Mlilo, took it all in stride. She’d been growing this baby for nearly two years, and her maternal instincts were alive and kicked in right on cue. She was born for this.

Two months prior, Mlilo arrived aboard a chartered 747 jet from drought-stricken Swaziland, Africa, as part of an intricate airlift to save her and 16 other elephants from being culled. This, in turn, saved her AND her beautiful baby boy.

Our animal experts suspected Mlilo was pregnant, but all hormone testing came back inconclusive. Regardless, we were very careful with Mlilo’s day-to-day care, and were able to create the positive conditions surrounding Ajabu’s successful birth.

Estimated to be 15 years old, Mlilo arrived here thin and underweight, but better nutrition in just the few weeks leading up to her delivery helped her gain 300 crucial pounds. And over the course of the next five months, we allowed mom and baby much time to bond privately, and grow together, while we worked to “baby-proof” the Giants of the Savanna habitat.

As we celebrate this precious baby’s first birthday, we look back on the moments that truly take our breath away. And if you weren’t a fan already, we’re certain that over the past year, this rambunctious boy has made you fall in love with his vulnerable species.

We insist you binge watch:

  1. Captured on the barn cameras, Ajabu’s birth; mom’s gentle nudge encouraging baby to stand; his first steps; his first time nursing, will forever remain one of those “pinch us, we’re dreaming” moments. (And yes, utter disbelief caused much pinching.)
  2. That time newborn Ajabu wouldn’t let mom sleep, and Mlilo obliged with his antics Every. Single. Time. #MomGoals
  3. When baby Ajabu took his first dip in a kiddie pool and we thought there was nothing cuter. (We were quickly proven wrong. See No. 4.)
  4. Baby boy received his first ball and played so hard that food and water were the only things that could tear him away. Priorities.
  5. Another major first, the day Mlilo and Ajabu explored their “baby-proofed” habitat This was an unforgettable moment.
  6. Then seeing it all come full circle as baby Ajabu and Mlilo ventured into our largest habitat with other herd members.

Hmm, can you still call a 4-foot-tall, 800-pound, one-year-old elephant a “baby”? Actually, don’t answer. He’s our baby and always will be.

Ajabu, whose African name means “wonder,” “amazing” and “extraordinary” is a remarkable ambassador for his troubled species, inspiring guests daily to help find answers to the grave crisis elephants face in Africa. He represents so much.

He’s here because we took a chance, a major one. And the way children light up when they see his tiny trunk, his perfect ears, and hear his little trumpets – it’s unexplainable. Ajabu plays such a key role in inspiring our next generation of wildlife warriors to save species from extinction and ensure we never know a world without the majestic, powerful African elephant.

Happy first birthday to our baby boy Ajabu. You mean more to us than you will ever know.

And a thank you to Mlilo. You’re the kind of protective, playful, and present mother all moms wish they could be. Here’s to a very Happy Mother’s Day, mama Mlilo.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

It’s been one magical year with our Swaziland elephants

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Tendaji and Zola share a playful moment.

Tendaji and Zola share a playful moment.

Today marks one monumental year since we rescued five elephants from drought-stricken Swaziland, Africa. (We’re as shocked as you are that it’s really been a year.) The elephants were flown to the U.S. aboard a chartered 747 jet in a carefully planned operation, arriving March 11, 2016.

Nolwazi, Amahle, Zola, Tendaji, Mlilo and baby Ajabu joined our four “Golden Girls,” Jenny, Gypsy, Congo and Kamba. And since they’ve arrived, we’ve soaked up every minute of this opportunity to get to know them.

Nolwazi, Jenny and Zola rub their trunks on one another./Jared Moeller

Nolwazi, Jenny and Zola rub their trunks on one another./Jared Moeller

They’ve taught us more than we could’ve imagined. Patience. Perseverance. Our love runs so deep for these animals.

Each elephant is complex and personable, each different from the next, yet so perfect together. They’ve merged extremely well with our Golden Girls.

“Their social bonding has exceeded our highest expectations,” said Harrison Edell, vice president of animal operations and welfare. “It’s been quite heartwarming to see them form such strong connections so quickly.”

As they continue to figure out their social hierarchy within the 10-member herd, we’ve enjoyed learning who’s drawn to who; who prefers dips in the pool and who prefers dry land most; who brings the playful trouble and who respects their elders. Here’s the shortened Cliff Notes version.

Gypsy embraces Amahle./Marc Abelanet

Gypsy embraces Amahle./Marc Abelanet

According to our rock star elephant keepers, “little” Amahle, who is daughter to Nolwazi, is goofy, playful, loud and dramatic. She’s an instigator and gets away with it, because most of the elephants are simply drawn to this social butterfly. She’s a water baby and will gladly swim solo, or welcome a partner. She’ll lay down and flop around in the pool with the Texas sun shining down on her.

Nolwazi, who is protective of daughter Amahle, is pretty quiet and mellow, but has a frisky side that she can’t hide. She enjoys playfully sparring with older gals Jenny and Gypsy. She enjoy pool dips and serious mud wallow sessions. She also loves her browse, stripping the bark off of branches and snapping ‘em like twigs.

Tendaji is a ladies man for sure, and the ladies sure love their boy! Zola and Gypsy are his go-to sparring partners. He frequents mud wallow gatherings with the ladies, where they’ll splash in the mud with no cares. He’s grown into one confident, gregarious fella.

Take note: This is how you really enjoy a sand pile. Thanks, Nolwazi and Jenny./Jared Moeller

Two happy elephants in a sand pile. (Nolwazi and Jenny)/Jared Moeller

Zola can be quiet and reserved, but at other times very playful and assertive. She’s great at respecting her elders, and is a leader by example. Her favorite sparring partners are Amahle and Tendaji – the playing never ends.

Mama Mlilo is busy raising her 635-pound, 10-month-old baby Ajabu like a pro. She’s patient and attentive, and keeps a very watchful eye on her precious boy. She enjoys wallowing and dust bathing with the sand.

Ajabu, our surprise baby born two months after their arrival, loves getting dirty, climbing on rocks and logs, investigating everything and testing his strength by trying to push logs around. “He’s sometimes overly dramatic, and is usually full of energy, but will often have afternoon siestas if he has worn himself out earlier in the day,” said elephant supervisor Katrina Bilski.

Ten-month-old Ajabu take a break to nurse.

Ajabu takes a break to nurse.

Last year, our Swaziland rescues arrived underweight. With food sources affected by the historic Swaziland drought, we were paying to bring in truckloads of hay from South Africa to feed the hungry elephants.

Now, their diet is as gourmet as it gets. Fresh woody “browse” greets the growing elephants daily – they spend hours foraging for scattered branches like American elm, Bradford pear and red-tipped photinia. Produce like sweet potatoes and carrots are crowd favorites; squash, zucchini, and celery, though, not so much.

Bilski says Ajabu is the odd exception. “The baby loves his greens, especially kale and celery.”

And they’ve packed on weight like happy honeymooners on vacation.

Nolwazi, our oldest Swaziland elephant estimated to be 23 years old, and Amahle’s mom:

  • Arrival weight: 4,310 pounds
  • Now: 5,390 pounds

Mlilo, estimated to be 14 years old, and mother to Ajabu:

  • Arrival weight: 4,775 pounds
  • Now: 5,000 pounds and a nursing mama

Zola, estimated to be 14 years old:

  • Arrival weight: 4,055 pounds
  • Now: 5,160 pounds

Tendaji, our bull, estimated to be 14 years old:

  • Arrival weight: 3,530 pounds
  • Now: 4,780 pounds

Amahle, daughter to Nolwazi, estimated to be 8 years old:

  • Arrival weight: 2,395 pounds
  • Now: 3,130 pounds

We hope you’ve enjoyed observing these exceptionally smart, dynamic animals as much as we’ve loved caring for them. Elephants in the wild have a huge crisis to combat, and one we will continue to fight wholeheartedly in Africa and here at the Dallas Zoo.

“Our research scientists have several observation projects under way involving our 10-elephant herd,” said Edell. “With the species facing such an uncertain future and so many threats in the wild, that critically important information will help us ensure that these animals thrive in human care.”

Our Swaziland elephants remind us every day why we undertook this long, difficult process to bring them to a home where they’re safe, loved and enriched.

And a special shout-out goes to our elephant curator Karen Gibson and her remarkably devoted, hard-working team of keepers. They’re world-class.

Check out this slideshow of never-before-seen photos of our herd.

The elephants gather on the Savanna.
The elephants gather on the Savanna.
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Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant, Mammals | Tags: | 7 Comments

Elephant introductions: A peek at a very complicated process

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It’s been eight months since we rescued five elephants from Swaziland, Africa, in an intricate airlift to save their lives. Since then, we’ve been introducing the new arrivals – Nolwazi, Amahle, Zola, Tendaji and Mlilo – to our four “Golden Girls,” Jenny, Gypsy, Congo and Kamba.

And believe us, entire NASA expeditions to outer space may have been launched with less care, planning, observation and hard work. Have you ever introduced a new pet to your family? Now imagine it with 10,000-pound animals.

All summer, the nine adult elephants have been in various parts of the Giants of the Savanna habitat, getting to know each other and forming their own complex social bonds. The arrival of calf Ajabu in May brought great joy, but added another layer of complexity to the introductions.

Congo, Kamba, Tendaji and Zola graze together in the Giants of the Savanna habitat.

Congo, Kamba, Tendaji and Zola graze together in the Giants of the Savanna habitat.

Our keepers have monitored the elephants almost around-the-clock. (They even slept in the elephant barn after Ajabu was born, to keep an eye on the little guy.) And our research scientists and volunteers keep detailed notes of all of the interactions, to chart the herd dynamics.

It’s been complex, exhilarating, humbling, emotional, sometimes nerve-wracking – and incredibly rewarding. So we’d like to share just a bit of our daily lives with these remarkable creatures, taken from our team’s observation notes and interviews.

Remember, training occurs simply so we can provide better medical and husbandry care for the elephants. We utilize “protected contact,” not sharing their space, so we let elephants be elephants.

Read more »

Categories: Conservation, Elephant | 2 Comments

Dallas Zoo’s baby elephant and mom meet their adoring fans

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img_5224-ajabu-mlilo-elephant-w-logo-csLoyal and loving fans of our baby elephant, Ajabu, and his mom, Mlilo, one of the elephants rescued from drought-stricken Swaziland this spring, can now see the mother-son pair in the Giants of the Savanna.

Earlier this week, the 5-month-old calf and his mom were gently introduced to the lower portion of the Giants of the Savanna habitat. But starting today, Ajabu will make regular appearances outdoors, weather permitting. The elephant care team will keep a watchful eye on temperature and rain to ensure that our growing calf remains safe and healthy.

“It’s an incredible feeling to see how involved the public has been in Ajabu’s five months of life without meeting him until today,” said Gregg Hudson, Dallas Zoo president and CEO. “Ajabu is a remarkable ambassador for his declining species, and now he’s able to connect our community even more to the importance of protecting African elephants.”

After his birth, we allowed several months for the calf and mother to bond privately while staff worked to “baby-proof” every area the baby _mg_2576-cb-w-logowould inhabit, including two barns, behind-the-scenes yards, and the lower portion of the Giants of the Savanna habitat.

Portions of the habitat, which includes 12-foot-deep ponds and gaps that needed to be closed off, were safeguarded for the well-being of the little fellow. A shallow portion of the pond remains for the water-loving calf to enjoy. And as he grows, he will be given access to deeper parts of the pond.

At birth, Ajabu weighed 175 pounds and stood about 3 feet tall, with a tiny trunk just over a foot long. He’s now up to 332 pounds and stands almost 4 feet tall. His teeth are starting to grow in, and he’s experimenting with solid foods, like produce and hay. He still nurses often and remains close to Mlilo, who remains the ultimate, protective mom.

A constant ball of energy, Ajabu enjoys “sparring” with tree branches, pushing his favorite ball around, and exploring with his trunk, which he recently discovered makes noises when he’s excited.

In addition to Ajabu and Mlilo, who’s believed to be about 14 years old, the Swaziland elephants at the Dallas Zoo include bull Tendaji and females Zola, Amahle and Nolwazi. All range in age from 6 to their mid-20s. They join our four “Golden Girls” – Jenny, Gypsy, Congo and Kamba – in the award-winning Giants of the Savanna habitat. Ajabu and Mlilo eventually will join other herd members in the habitats after careful, methodical introductions.

Earlier this year, the Dallas Zoo collaborated with conservation officials in Swaziland, Africa, and two other accredited U.S. facilities to provide a safe haven for 17 African elephants. The elephants had destroyed trees and other vegetation in the managed parks where they lived, making the land uninhabitable for more critically endangered rhinos. Swaziland managers planned to kill the elephants in order to focus on rhino conservation. The elephants were flown to the U.S. aboard a chartered 747 jet in a carefully planned operation, arriving March 11, 2016.

All three U.S. partner zoos – Dallas Zoo; Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb.; and Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan. – have expansive new habitats that set the standard for an advanced way of managing elephants in human care, allowing for socialization, herd behavior and extensive walking. Public support for the rescue has been overwhelming, given the critical situation in the animals’ native land. African elephants face many threats, ranging from human encroachment on their habitat to extreme poaching, which claims the life of nearly 100 elephants every day.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

Baby elephant’s first bath saves internet

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The internet needs rescuing this week. Our country is wounded; our hearts hurt. But we can bring you a smile and a bit of lighthearted relief, courtesy of one baby whose innocence is gracing cyberspace with raw, unfiltered joy.

Cue: Baby elephant’s first-ever water hose spray-down session.

Give your heart permission to melt. Save these photos as the wallpaper on your phone. Send to a friend or family member who needs it. This is pure bliss.

Born one month ago on May 14 to mom Mlilo, this little guy is changing every day. During this unforgettable water session with mom, he plopped down on the ground, enamored of the spitting water he could collect on his tongue.

Another recent “first” is putting food items in his mouth, just like mom. His awkward trunk manages to scoop up lone leaves. But unlike mom, he hasn’t mastered the consumption part just yet. Everything right now is simply exploratory.

He enjoys investigating mom’s diet as she eats. He plants this body directly under Mlilo’s jaw, fixated by the smells and sounds of her munching. His attempts to maneuver his tiny trunk into her open mouth fail every time.

He’s also learning basic husbandry behaviors, like target training. These skills eventually will help him voluntarily present parts of his body to keepers during health checks. As an AZA-accredited, protected contact zoo, we don’t share the same space with certain animals without a barrier between us. That’s why positive reinforcement training is so crucial. It lets the animal act as naturally as possible, and keeps both staff and animals safe.

“The calf enjoys the tactile sensation of working with the target, which resembles a massive cotton swab,” said elephant Curator Karen Gibson. “Mlilo’s attentive and protective of her baby, but she trusts us when we work with him. And he’s very comfortable with us. It’s always his choice if he wants to participate.”

And just like a toddler, constant distractions consume this little boy’s world.

“He’s a wild little man who brings us so much joy,” Gibson said. “It’s fascinating to watch him grow daily. His poops look like perfect Hershey’s kisses. And he’s learned to use his trunk like a straw in the water trough to blow bubbles.”

With multiple naps a day, endless nursing bouts, and continuous play sessions, we’ll never tire of this ellie boy’s antics. And it’s our promise to you to never stop sharing the moments that capture the sunshine he exudes, especially in dark times when we all need it most.

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Categories: Elephant | 28 Comments

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