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    A 270-pound bundle of hope

    Sara, an Asian elephant, is a bright spot for a species teetering near extinction.

    By LINDA GIBSON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


    LAKELAND -- Baby Sara stares out from between her mother's massive front legs, unaware that her birth two weeks ago gives hope for the survival of her species.

    photo
    [Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
    Baby Sara, a 2-week-old Asian elephant calf that weighed 270 pounds at birth, walks between the legs of her mother, Icky, on Monday at the Center for Elephant Conservation near Lakeland.
    In their native countries, Asian elephants are in danger of extinction. In captivity, they have been a challenge to breed.

    But on a 200-acre farm east of Lakeland, Sara's birth is the first of five expected in the next two years.

    She and her parents live with 23 other Asian elephants at the Center for Elephant Conservation, a private facility built in 1995 by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

    Female elephant performers who are ready to breed move to the center and are brought together with its resident stud, 30-year-old Charlie.

    Charlie's success has resulted in four more due dates: November 2001, April and July of 2002 and January of 2003.

    "The most we've ever had pregnant at one time is two," said general manager Randy Peterson, 29. "This is unprecedented."

    There are only 44 male Asian elephants in the United States, said Mike Keele, assistant director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland and coordinator of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's species survival plan for Asian elephants.

    Zoos have been reluctant to house males, which limited breeding, because they can weigh 20,000 pounds and be highly destructive.

    In Asian countries such as Thailand, India, Vietnam and Indonesia, "There was really never great emphasis in breeding them," said Keele. "They could just go out to the wild and grab another one."

    That no longer is true. The number of Asian elephants worldwide has dropped from roughly 1-million at the turn of the century to fewer than 50,000, according to estimates by wildlife organizations.

    Asian elephants live in the most densely populated part of the world. Forest-clearing for settlement, agriculture and logging reduces the large areas herds need for survival. Poachers looking for ivory and elephant parts for the Chinese medicine market also kill a number of them.

    The logistics of elephant reproduction further complicate matters. They don't reach sexual maturity until ages 16 to 18. Gestation takes 22 months, and only one calf is born at a time.

    In addition, the window for conception is small. Females can be impregnated during two or three days of a 15-week cycle. At the center, their blood is tested weekly or more often to find those few days, as measured by their progesterone levels.

    When those days arrive, they're put out to pasture with Charlie. Monday afternoon, Charlie could be heard sporting with two females.

    Sara, who weighed 270 pounds at birth, is gaining about 4 pounds a day. She spends all her time underneath the protection of her 8,500-pound mother, Icky, who deftly manages not to step on the calf. While mom sprayed dirt and sand over her back to discourage the flies and blunt the sun, Sara stayed among Icky's four legs and nursed. A couple of 4-year-olds, Doc and Angelica, played in another pen, running, chasing, bumping and teasing each other like a couple of preschoolers.

    Grown elephants like to play, too. Peterson and the staff are constantly looking for new toys durable enough to last more than a few days. Tree limbs, logs and tire swings do well.

    So does a 230-pound, steel ocean buoy, although Charlie occasionally tosses it over the pen's 8-foot fence. Retrieving it is a chore.

    Peterson, who lives at the center with his wife and three children, heads a staff of 13 who start the day at 6 a.m. The elephants are hosed down, fed, walked 2 to 3 miles for exercise, then left in their outside pens while their barn is cleaned. At 3:30 p.m., they're fed again, hosed again and put into the barn for the night.

    Collectively, they eat more than 2 tons of hay and up to 800 pounds of fruit and vegetables each day, and produce a ton of waste.

    When the calves are old enough to perform, they and their mothers go back into the circus. When they reach retirement age, which varies, they go to a retirement farm near Gainesville.

    "This is a 50- to 60-year commitment," said Peterson, referring to the animal's life span. "Sara will outlive me."

    -- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382.

    Sara the Asian elephant

    Born: April 16, 2001

    Birth weight: 270 pounds

    Length: 41 inches

    Height: 39 inches

    Mother: Icky, age 25

    Father: Charlie, age 30

    Named after a star circus performer, Sara is the third calf born to Icky. Sara's oldest sister, 8-year-old Juliette, performs in the circus. Her other sister, 3-year-old Angelica, lives on the compound in Polk County.

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