The Zoo has brought in girlfriends and arranged dates in hopes that a couple-hundred-pound bundle of joy will arrive in, say, two years.

by Mary Delach Leonard, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 3, 2003

After months of flirting over the "Howdy" wall, Raja - Our Town's favorite Asian elephant - and his new girl Sri met in a special hideaway at the St. Louis Zoo last week, and he seemed smitten.

From time to time, he would even stop munching on bamboo - freshly tossed by his keepers - to nuzzle Sri, who had dusted herself quite attractively with dirt. Their meeting place was an outdoor enclosure tucked away from the public eye.

Though Sri (pronounced See) is older and more worldly than her suitor (she's 23 and was born in Thailand; he's 10-going-on-11 and a native St. Louis Zoo-an), they are both innocents when it comes to romance.

As Raja considered his next move, a watchful keeper picked up her radio.

"He's showing interest," she reported, and before long a handful of keepers was on the scene. Even Zoo president Jeffrey Bonner and Zoo Commission president Steve Schankman stopped by to wish the couple well.

"We're all excited. This is a big deal for all of us," explained Martha Fischer, curator of mammals/ungulates, who has watched Raja grow from an adorable 275-pound baby into this amorous 8-foot bull who weighs 7,200 pounds and is still growing.

"I have pictures of him in my office with his head in my lap - and now he's this massive elephant," she said, her voice a blend of wistful pride.

Raja, who created a public sensation when he was born at the Zoo on Dec. 27, 1992, remains a must-see attraction, though visitors still tend to think of him as a little tyke.

"People ask where he is every day - sometimes even when he is in the yard," said Fischer.

These days, Raja spends hours away from the River's Edge exhibit tending to his, um, affairs.

Sri is not his only female companion. There is also Ellie, 31, a more experienced lovely. But though Raja and Ellie have met in recent weeks - in this same special place - he was showing a lot more interest in Sri.

And she seemed receptive to the idea.

The path to love

The Zoo has been planning for Raja's courtship since his birth, and it has been a jumbo task, involving everything from new buildings to a re-thinking of elephant handling to the science of endocrinology.

An adult male Asian elephant is an enormous responsibility, and many zoos do not keep them because they lack suitable facilities, explained Fischer. Fully grown, Raja will reach 10 feet in height and weigh about 10,000 pounds.

His birth was an impetus for the development of the modern elephant facility at River's Edge, which opened in 1999, and offers not only improved viewing areas for the public but secure space for male elephants and a separate enclosure suitable for breeding - Raja and Sri's "special place."

Until Raja's birth, keepers worked directly with the elephants in their stalls or yards under a "free contact" method. Now that there's a bull on the premises, keepers no longer enter enclosures. They perform all training and husbandry from outside protective barriers - a "protected contact" method.

Then there was the match-making. The Zoo belongs to a cooperative population management program under the auspices of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Through the Elephant Species Survival Plan - think of it as a computerized dating service - zoos can match males and females who are likely to produce healthy and genetically sound calves.

Survival plans for endangered species, such as Asian elephants, represent the new thinking of modern zoos, which no longer catch these animals in the wild but instead breed their already captive population, said Fischer.

Raja is a first-generation example. Both his mother, Pearl, who lives at the Zoo, and his father, Onyx - who died last year at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., - were wild-caught, as were Sri and Ellie. They were matched with Raja through the species survival plan.

Sri came a year ago, on long-term loan from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Ellie, 31, was loaned by the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida and arrived two years ago, accompanied by her young calf, Rani, now 7.

Raja is one of a limited number of bulls who lives in a facility designed for breeding.

But breeding Raja has meant a major commitment by the Zoo, which must be prepared to keep his offspring, explained Cathi Fueglein, zoology manager of River's Edge.

In the wild, female calves stay with their maternal herd throughout their lives. Because of that bond, a daughter of Raja would only move to another zoo if her mom came along. Though male offspring in the wild do leave their maternal herds when they become rowdy adolescents, a son of Raja might stay at the Zoo because it is such a challenge to find zoos capable of handling adult males, Fueglein said.

In recent months, the Zoo keepers have been helping the new girls adjust to their surroundings. Sri and Ellie have found their place in the Zoo herd, though they tend to get along better with the other elephants than with one another, Fueglein said.

And Raja, who had been separated from the herd by a barrier - the so-called "Howdy" wall - needed some work on his social skills.

"He was sort of a punk," said Fischer. "He was young and rambunctious and big. He is an excellent elephant, but he does have an aggressive tendency - as any male elephant would."

And though his heart was willing, Raja had to grow a bit to be tall enough to mate.

"In Raja's mind, he's been ready for a while," said Fischer. "In the wild at 10 1/2 he would not have a chance to breed cows. He'd either have been hanging out alone or with the bachelors. The good news for him is that here he has no competition, no older bulls he has to fend or fight off. We bring the cows to him - and we track them to determine when they're in heat."

Keepers take weekly blood samples from the elephants for Zoo endocrinologist Joan Bauman who charts their hormonal levels to predict when the females will be receptive to mating. Reproductive cycles vary by elephant and can range from 12 to 16 weeks; cows are only fertile for a three- to four-day period.

But Bauman can determine a two-week window of opportunity to help the keepers arrange Raja's dating schedule.

"The male elephant and female elephant can detect this better than I can with all of my scientific equipment," Bauman pointed out.

Raja's meetings with Sri and Ellie are always chaperoned - a keeper is assigned at all times to observe the goings-on. That's to ensure their safety should Raja get too aggressive, said Fueglein.

She also helped groom Raja for his upcoming courtship, trimming back his tusks a little at a time so they wouldn't harm his mates. (His reward was Oreo cookies.)

Should mating be successful - and the keepers do think Raja will figure this all out - don't expect babies any time soon. The gestation period for Asian elephants is 21 to 22 months.

Still, the prospect brings smiles all around.

"Raja was so welcomed when he was born - the first baby elephant born at the St. Louis Zoo," said Fischer. "Every year on his birthday, two days after Christmas, we have a party for him, and people still come."

Asian elephants: An endangered species

Numbers: Between 37,000 and 48,000 in the wild, a decline from about 100,000 in the early 1900s.

Native home: Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam.

Life span: About 60 years.

The St. Louis herd: Clara (the matriarch); Pearl (Raja's mother); Donna, Ellie, Sri, Raja and Rani (Ellie's daughter)

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