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.
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.
Loyal 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 would 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.
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.
It’s big news: we’ve welcomed a male African elephant calf, born Saturday, May 14, to Mlilo, one of our elephants rescued from drought-stricken Swaziland. The relocation of these elephants to Dallas in March not only saved Mlilo, but also provided for the survival of this beautiful calf, who will be an excellent ambassador for his species, inspiring guests to help find answers to the grave crisis elephants face in Africa.
“This birth validates the critical importance of our rescue efforts and why we worked so hard to get these animals to safety as quickly as possible,” said Gregg Hudson, our Dallas Zoo president and CEO.
“I shudder to think what would have happened to Mlilo and her calf if this move hadn’t occurred, and without the last six months of food and water we provided while they were in Swaziland, plus the excellent care and nutrition they have received upon their arrival.”
Here’s a Q&A about the birth, a precious ray of hope for African elephants:
How are mom and baby? They’re doing great, receiving round-the-clock veterinary and keeper care. The baby is active and exploring the barn, although he doesn’t get too far from mom. He’s nursing and vocalizing as expected.
The calf stands about 3 feet tall, and his tiny trunk is just over a foot long. His ears are light pink, contrasting with his darker gray body. He weighs 175 pounds, which is on the low end of the 150- to 300-pound range for newborn African elephants. A low birth weight isn’t surprising, given the difficult conditions in Swaziland during his 22-month gestation.
Does he have a name yet? No, that will come later. Our staff is busy now caring for him and our other nine elephants, but will come up with names reflecting his heritage.
When was he born? Mlilo went into labor Saturday night, May 14. The birth went uneventfully and quickly, and the calf was born naturally at 10:15 p.m.
Were you prepared for the calf? Yes. Since the elephants arrived, our veterinary and keeper teams have constantly monitored all of the elephants, noting Mlilo’s potential pregnancy. Our elephants’ habitat has deep, soft sand, which provided a soft natural landing for the newborn.
Are they being monitored? Absolutely. For those critical first few days after his birth, keepers even stayed around-the-clock in the barn, providing regular updates to the veterinary and nutrition teams. As our elephant experts continue to build trust and develop relationships with the Swaziland elephants, husbandry training will allow more detailed veterinary care.
When did you know Mlilo was pregnant? We had some indications of a possible pregnancy in Swaziland, but hormone testing was inconclusive. Additionally, breeding-age bull elephants in Swaziland had been vasectomized, so the chances of a pregnancy were extremely low. Regardless, we have been very careful with Mlilo’s day-to-day care, and were able to create the positive conditions for a successful birth. Better nutrition for the past two months has helped Mlilo, who’s estimated to be about 14 years old, gain 300 crucial pounds.
Who is the father? We don’t know which bull in Swaziland fathered the calf. Wildlife management officials there don’t always witness breeding behavior. And because elephant overpopulation is a challenge in their parks, they performed vasectomies on their bulls. However, elephant contraception isn’t yet perfected; just as in humans, the vasectomy may not always work to prevent pregnancies.
Are any of the other Swaziland elephants pregnant? There are no indications that any are pregnant. Elephants have a 22-month gestation, so it is possible, but not something we’re anticipating.
Does the birth show that Swaziland plans to breed elephants? No. Swaziland’s detailed wildlife plan doesn’t include breeding elephants. Officials there are pursuing efforts, such as the vasectomies, to prevent future births.
Is your staff experienced with elephant husbandry to care for the calf and mother? Yes. Experts on our staff previously have cared for young elephants. We also are collaborating with elephant experts at other AZA-accredited institutions, taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge among that group.
When will guests be able to see them? We don’t know yet. It could be several months, while Mlilo, her calf, and the rest of the herd bond.
A close-up of mother Nolwazi enjoying some browse.
Our experts have been busy round-the-clock caring for the five elephants we rescued from drought-ravaged Swaziland. We’re happy to report that the new arrivals are doing well!
They’re loving their much better diet. With food and hay affected by the drought, they arrived underweight. But in the past three weeks, all have gained weight, with several putting on more than 100 pounds.
And they’re already bonding with our keepers. Because we use only protected contact and free choice – we don’t force the animals to do anything they don’t want to do – these relationships are very important. Names are critical; elephants definitely respond when they hear them. The keepers chose names that honor the elephants’ African heritage.
So please let us introduce:
Mlilo (“fire”): She’s a spirited one! Estimated at 10-15 years old, her name is pronounced “ma-LEE-lo.”
Zola (“quiet/tranquil”): About the same age as Mlilo, she’s a mellow girl.
Amahle (“beautiful one”): Aged 6-10, she’s the smallest – but she’s growing fast, having put on more than 110 pounds so far! It’s pronounced “a-MAH-lee.”
Nolwazi (“knowledgable”): The oldest at 20-25 years and Amahle’s mother. Pronounced “nole-WAH-zee.”
Tendaji (“make it happen”): The only bull, he’s also gained more than 100 pounds. Pronounced “ten-DAHJ-ee.”
Male Tendaji dozes off on a sand mound.
The group remains together under a USDA quarantine, which we expect to be lifted shortly. But don’t count on seeing them all in the Giants of the Savanna soon; we’ll move slowly to give them time to adjust to the new habitats and be introduced to our four “Golden Girls.”
This remarkable rescue was a long, complex process, made even more difficult by the spreading of misinformation. But because of your continued support, these five remarkable creatures are alive and thriving, and we’re proud of that. Thank you!
There’s so much going on at the Dallas Zoo, we had to start a blog to tell you about it all. Have an idea for a story or a question for us? Email Info@DallasZoo.com and put “ZooHoo!” in the subject line.