The Zoo's star attraction, Raja, is going to be a father. The 275-pound bundle of joy is expected in October or November 2005

by Diane Toroian Keaggy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 19, 2004

They sure grow up fast.

Raja, the St. Louis Zoo's top attraction, will be having a baby of his own. He and Sri, a 23-year-old newcomer to the Zoo, are expecting a little one in October or November 2005.

"We haven't wanted to get our hopes up too high, but she is pregnant," said Martha Fischer, curator of mammals/ungulates. "This is very exciting news."

Only 11 years ago, St. Louisans greeted Raja's birth with great publicity and parties. Some 10,000 visitors turned out for his first public appearance, and 44,000 doting fans submitted name suggestions.

Fischer expects that same sort of excitement this time around.

"Every birth is exciting, no matter what the species, but with an elephant there is so much planning and waiting," Fischer said. "It is a wonderful thing when a 275-pound baby enters the world."

Tests show that Sri (pronounced See) is four months along; elephants carry their calves for a term of 20 to 22 months. Though elephants face any number of risks during pregnancy, Fischer is "cautiously optimistic" all will go well. Zoo staff is monitoring Sri's diet of hay and produce and will devise an exercise plan for the winter months. She will continue to roam her yard at the River's Edge with friends Donna, Ellie and Rani for the remainder of her pregnancy. As for Raja, in typical bull form, he just sticks to himself.

"In Raja's mind, his work is done," Fischer said.

The 6,900-pound Sri shows no sign that she is with elephant; nor will she even as she carries around an extra 200 pounds.

Though many visitors still view Raja as a youngster, Fischer said he has been ready to sire an offspring for some time. The Zoo has been ready for a baby, too. In 1999, it constructed the River's Edge, a multimillion-dollar elephant estate with a yard, swimming pool and indoor facilities large enough to accommodate male elephants. Right now, Raja weighs about 8,100 pounds, but he will grow to 10 feet and 10,000 pounds.

The Zoo welcomed potential mate Ellie and her daughter Rani from the Jacksonville Zoo in 2001. The next year, Sri arrived from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Though Raja left Ellie cold, he charmed Sri.

"They seemed to hit it off from the get-go," Fischer said. "They ate side-by-side. They got along in the yard. And when she was in heat, they got along very well."

If Raja has a daughter, it probably will stay in St. Louis with her mother. A son may stay in St. Louis as well, though the American Zoo and Aquarium Association may send it to another zoo to breed. The association, through its Species Survival Plans, manages breeding at more the 200 North American zoos. The St. Louis Zoo will continue to try to mate Raja with Ellie and now Rani.

Michael Hutchins, the association's director of conservation and science, said word of Sri's pregnancy is good news for a community struggling to maintain its captive population of elephants. About 300 elephants reside in 80 North American zoos. Studies conducted in American zoos about elephant behavior, reproductive cycles and communication inform conservation efforts. Only some 37,000 to 48,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild.

"The entire city and Zoo can be proud. This really means something to the community and to the species as a whole," Hutchins said. "We are facing a prospect of a world without elephants, and people should keep that in mind as they watch the birth of Raja's son or daughter - how different this world would be without these animals."

Raja facts

Born: Dec. 27, 1992, the first elephant born at the St. Louis Zoo

Parents: Pearl, an Asian elephant at the Zoo, and Onyx, of the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo.

Birth weight: 275 pounds

Current weight: about 8,100 pounds

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Copyright 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com