We’ve been eagerly awaiting the birth of an Asian elephant at the Zoo for many months now – Shanti, one of our resident elephants, is pregnant and expected to give birth soon. As part of the preparation process, we have trained a dedicated team of more than 75 volunteers to participate in an overnight Elephant Birth Watch program to help ensure the safety of Shanti and her calf.
Shanti is 23 years old, and she is mom to Baylor, who is now 3 years old. She is the tallest female elephant in the herd, and she can be identified right now by also being the widest…calves can weigh 250-300 pounds at birth, so it’s quite understandable!
Birth Watch volunteers and Elephant keeper staff watch Shanti via closed circuit cameras 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The volunteer commitment is a weekly 4-hour shift, and everyone involved goes through an extensive training to be sure they know Shanti’s normal behaviors and can detect signs of labor. If Shanti is thought to be going into labor or not acting normally, the volunteers call the Elephant staff right away.
At first, volunteers stay overnight and watch the cameras between 4 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., and Elephant staff took the daytime shifts. Because we are nearing Shanti’s expected due date, Elephant keepers now sleep in the barn overnight just in case labor starts so they can react quickly, and the volunteers monitor the cameras.
Shanti also has quite a bit to do in preparation for birth. She takes daily walks to be sure that she keeps up her exercise and doesn’t gain too much weight, and her progesterone levels are monitored daily at this point to see if there is a drop. When the level drops to near zero, it’s a pretty good predictor that labor will be happening between 2 and 15 days from that point.
Signs of labor that the volunteers are trained to detect include lifting of the tail, swatting with the tail, straining, restlessness, squatting, and increased vocalizations. The most obvious sign is if her water were to break, and at that point, the animal staff goes into action.
Stay tuned to the Houston Zoo blog for updates – the next one you likely will see is a baby calf announcement!