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Indianapolis Zoo’s elephant makes history with artificial insemination

Xavier Roger

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Zahara, a 16-year-old African elephant at the Indianapolis Zoo, could give birth this fall to the first second-generation elephant conceived through artificial insemination.

The youngest of the zoo’s herd of five, Zahara is 15 months into a 22-month gestation period, the zoo announced last week. Zahara was born in 2006 to Ivory, a 41-year-old elephant who is still in the herd and was also artificially inseminated.

In an ultrasound video released by the zoo, veterinarians identified a grainy whipping shape as the calf’s trunk, along with a spine and a steady heartbeat. 

“We are pleased that Zahara’s pregnancy appears to be progressing normally as the calf continues to grow at a healthy rate with a consistent strong heartbeat on ultrasound,” said Dr. Melissa Fayette, Indianapolis Zoo associate veterinarian.

What does Zahara eat?

Zahara weighs 6,370 pounds and could gain as much as 800 to 1,000 pounds throughout her pregnancy. She’s still more than 1,500 pounds lighter than her 41-year-old mother, Ivory, who remains part of the zoo’s herd.

The elephant’s pregnancy diet is identical to her normal diet: 2½ bales of hay a day, along with fruits, vegetables and grain supplements for added vitamins and minerals. According to Judy Palermo, director of the zoo’s public relations, caregivers do not increase the elephant’s food intake during pregnancy but may add to her diet once the calf is born to supplement the mother’s lactation process.

The zoo’s veterinary staff monitors her diet, weight, blood values and exercise closely throughout the pregnancy.

Zahara, pictured here in 2006 at three weeks old and only 270 pounds, standing under her mother, Ivory.

The future of elephants in zoos

In the wild, African elephant herds have faced threats from illegal trafficking, ivory poaching and habitat destruction, so much so that their numbers have dropped from 10 million in 1913 to roughly 415,000 in 2015.

This trend has curbed the decades-long practice of transferring African elephants to U.S. zoos and given rise to breeding programs for multi-generational herds like those in Indianapolis and other zoos. These zoos often promote the programs to raise awareness of the animals and promote and fund wider conservation efforts. Roughly 160 African elephants live in U.S. zoos.

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