For several weeks now, Tamar, Michaela and Suzanne have been on a very strict diet, seeking to lose 600 kilograms apiece − because that’s what the doctor says is needed for the three Asian elephants to get pregnant.
Thus the mountains of apples and watermelons that used to grace their cages at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo have been replaced with low-calorie hay. They spend their mornings on long walks down the zoo’s trails before it opens to visitors. And once every two weeks, they are weighed on a special scale originally designed for trucks.
The pregnancy drive stems from the fact that Asian elephants are in danger of extinction. But the immediate impetus was the departure of Gabi, the zoo’s baby elephant, for his new home in a Turkish zoo two months ago. Gabi aroused worldwide interest because Tamar conceived him via artificial insemination with sperm from an elephant at an English zoo − a very rare procedure. With him gone, the zoo decided it was time to increase its stock of elephants again.
This time, it planned to use the natural method, with help from Teddy − the resident male Asian elephant. To assist the venture, it consulted Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt of Germany, a leading expert in elephant fertility. A few weeks ago, he came and did ultrasounds on the three females to examine their fertility.
“His primary and dramatic conclusion was an unequivocal recommendation that two of the elephants go on a strict diet,” said Dr. Nili Magen Avni, the zoo’s chief veterinarian. Michaela, according to Hildebrandt, did not need a diet, but she did need to take care not to gain any weight during her first trimester of pregnancy. But Tamar and Suzanne, who are both in their late 20s, each weigh about four tons − and they need to lose hundreds of kilograms.
“He said the elephants are in excellent physical condition, that they look wonderful, and that they get impressive care and training,” Magen Avni said. “But to reduce the risk to the elephants themselves and increase their chances of getting pregnant, they need to lose weight.”
The diet should not make life unpleasant for the elephants, she stressed. “In nature, they would in any case walk longer distances in search of food and would apparently eat lighter food,” she said. “Elephants like these in nature should already be pregnant.”
“The elephants adore walking the zoo’s trails,” she added. “They used to do three circuits of the zoo every day, and now they do five.”
The zoo isn’t waiting for the weight loss program to be finished: The females are already having periodic meetings with Teddy during peak fertility times, as determined by the biochemical laboratory at Hadassah Hospital, Ein Karem.
But even if success comes soon, it will be a while before the new baby arrives. Elephant pregnancies last 22 months.
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