The Asian Elephant is a fascinating animal that was once widespread throughout Asia. However, loss of habitat and poaching has forced remaining populations into heavily forested, inaccessible regions.
Asian Elephants can be found in Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Burma, China, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. There are fewer than 53,000 remaining throughout Asia, and the wild population is decreasing.
Three of Melbourne Zoo’s Asian Elephant herd are pregnant, with all conceiving naturally.
The opportunity for the closely bonded herd to raise three calves simultaneously is the work of Luk Chai, an adult breeding bull who arrived at Melbourne Zoo last December. The mums-to-be are Dokkoon, Num Oi and first-time-mum, Mali, who are all due to deliver towards the end of 2022.
While the calves will be born at Melbourne Zoo, they will join the whole herd in moving to Werribee Open Range Zoo in 2024, following completion of an $87 million expansion funded by the Victorian Government. The new space at Werribee Open Range Zoo will provide the herd with a new state-of-the-art home and 21 hectares to roam.
We will maintain our partnership with Fauna and Flora International, which aims to understand the threats to Asian elephants through conducting surveys and research on wild populations of Asian Elephants in northern Vietnam, so we can support these gentle giants in the wild.
As we wait for the babies to arrive, we would like to thank our experienced keepers and veterinary teams who are working around-the-clock to ensure the expectant mothers remain healthy and comfortable throughout this time.
At Melbourne Zoo, their home is the award-winning Trail of the Elephants, which allows the elephants space to roam and forage and move between different paddocks as they please.
Elephants are matriarchal, meaning the females live in a herd together while the males live by themselves or in small bachelor groups in the wild. We replicate this natural behaviour at Melbourne Zoo with our multi-generational, cohesive, female herd.
Multiple pregnancies have been achieved since Melbourne Zoo established the Cooperative Conservation Breeding Program upon the arrival of three young elephant cows from Thailand, in November 2006.
Melbourne Zoo’s first-ever calf, Mali, was the first female elephant born in Australia.
In the wild, the Asian Elephant eats leaves, flowers, fruits, shrubs, grasses and roots. At Melbourne Zoo, the herd’s diet is mostly hay and lucerne, along with treats of carrots, apples, bread, sugar cane, bamboo, and leafy branches. The Zoo’s elephants are contributors to the compost production at Melbourne Zoo, which is sold in garden centres as Zoo Gro.
Elephants, hormones and more!
You may already know that elephants are very intelligent and complex animals. They are deep thinkers that are tuned in to the world around them and can respond to even the slightest change in their environment.
When you're at Melbourne Zoo, there are two interesting occasions that you may observe a change in the behaviour of our bull elephant, Luk Chai: when he detects a female elephant is in oestrus or when he is in musth.
What is oestrus?
Oestrus is the period around the time when a female elephant can fall pregnant. It happens roughly every three months and is caused by a hormonal change in the female elephant. Bull elephants like Luk Chai have an incredible ability to detect a female elephant who is in oestrus. They do this by examining the females with their keen sense of smell.
When Luk Chai is detecting that one of our females is in oestrus, there are some occasions when we are required to keep him separated from the females for breeding management reasons (we have made a commitment to ensure we breed carefully, responsibly and sustainably).
This can cause some frustration for Luk Chai but we are passionate about supporting the complex and fascinating social needs of both cows and bulls so our keepers create variability and opportunities for Luk Chai to move around all the habitats and explore, as well as social time with Man Jai and the female herd when appropriate.
What is musth?
Bull elephants enter a hormonal cycle called ‘musth’ which is accompanied by a higher level of reproductive hormones and a change in behaviour.
A typical characteristic you can observe is the draining of fluid from their temporal glands on the side of their head and dribbling of urine - nice, huh? It’s natural for them to become more unpredictable and aggressive during this time. They may have a reduced appetite and sometimes are not easily distracted from their focus on the other elephants.
When a female is in oestrus or when Luk Chai is in musth, there are some occasions where Luk Chai needs to be kept separate from the other elephants during this time and this may cause some obvious frustration but we are passionate about supporting the complex and fascinating social needs of both cows and bulls, and ensuring that the safety of all individuals is considered. Our keepers create variability and opportunities for all the elephants to move around all the habitats and explore, as well as social time when appropriate.
Each time you visit, you are likely to see the elephants doing something different!
Facts about Asian Elephants
- Elephant tusks are a modified form of upper incisors: the front teeth that many animals use for cutting food.
- The trunk is used for feeding, watering, smelling, touching, communicating, lifting, dusting, and fighting.
- Their trunks can hold up to 8.5L of water.
Meet the animals
Melbourne Zoo's oldest elephant, Mek Kapah arrived at the Zoo on May 11 1978 from Malaysia. She is the matriarch (leader) of the herd.
Kulab arrived on November 5 2006 from Thailand. In 2010, she gave birth to Melbourne Zoo's first male calf, Ongard, who is now part of an breeding program in America.
Dokkoon arrived at Melbourne Zoo on November 5 2006 from Thailand. In 2010 she gave birth to Melbourne Zoo's first elephant calf, Mali, and then in 2013 she gave birth to Man Jai.
Num-Oi arrived at Melbourne Zoo on November 5 2006 from Thailand. You can pick Num-Oi apart from the other elephants in the herd by her distended stomach which is a result of her diet before arriving at Melbourne Zoo from Thailand. Num-Oi has had two pregnancies but sadly both calves died at a young age.
Born 4 July 2009 at Taronga Zoo Sydney, Luk Chai, meaning "male child" or "son" in Thai, is an energetic, inquisitive and confident male elephant who loves a splash around in the pool. He arrived at Melbourne Zoo in December 2020 for social and breeding opportunities with our female herd and social opportunities with our other male adolescent, Man Jai.
Born 16 January 2010, Mali was the first elephant to be born at Melbourne Zoo. She is a big sister to Man Jai and a mini-matriarch in the making. Like her late father Bong Su, Mali has a zig-zag tail that makes her easy to spot in the herd. Mali means 'jasmine' in Thai.
Born 8 December 2013, Man Jai, which means 'confident' in Thai is the resident rascal of the herd. He is Dokkoon’s second baby and can often be seen playing with his mum, or big sister Mali.