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Plants & Animals
Elephant Breeding > Breeding Basics
  About African Elephants [more info]
  • African or Asian? [more info]
  • Anatomy of an African Elephant [more info]
  Elephant Conservation [more info]
  • What is causing the dramatic decline in the African Elephant population range? [more info]
  • Is captive breeding the solution? [more info]
  • What can you do to save the Elephants [more info]
  Breeding [more info]
  • African Elephant breeding basics [more info]
  • Risk reduction [more info]
  • One giant step toward breeding success as The Toledo Zoo [more info]

Breeding Basics
In order to overcome the many challenges associated with breeding elephants in captivity, it's vital to understand their reproductive strategies, birthing process, and calf-rearing behavior in the wild.

The "Skinny" on Elephant Reproduction

Females (cows) reach sexual maturity at around 9-12 years of age and become pregnant for the first time, on average, around age 13. They can reproduce until ages 55-60.

Females give birth at intervals of about every 5 years.

Although males (bulls) reach sexual maturity around age 10, they often do not breed until they are about 30 when they become large and strong enough to compete successfully with other large bulls for the attention of females.

An elephant's gestation period lasts about 22 months (630-660 days), the longest gestation period of any mammal, after which one calf typically is born. Twins are rare.

The initial signs of labor include: bulging beneath the tail, general discomfort, and straining. Also, the pregnant elephant's progesterone (a hormone that maintains pregnancy) level drops approximately 3-5 days prior to the onset of labor.

Labor ranges in length from 5 minutes to 60 hours. The average length of labor is 11 hours.

At birth, calves weigh around 200-250 pounds, and they gain 2-2.5 pounds a day.

In the wild, the mother is accompanied by other adult females (aunts) that protect the young.

In the wild, baby elephants are raised and nurtured by the whole family group, practically from the moment they are born.

Motherhood and calf rearing

The first sound a newborn calf usually makes is a sneezing or snorting sound to clear its nasal passages of fluids. (In the first few minutes after a captive birth, the keepers must monitor the calf closely for the first sound or movement. Whichever happens first, the mother typically responds to her new baby with surprise and excitement.)

With the help of their mothers, newborn calves usually struggle to their feet within 30 minutes of birth. For support, they often lean on their mothers' legs.

Newborn calves usually stand within one hour and are strong enough to follow their mothers in a slow-moving herd within a few days.

Unlike most mammals, female elephants have a single pair of mammary glands located just behind the front legs. When born, a calf is about 3 feet high, just tall enough to reach its mother's nipples.

A calf suckles with its mouth, not its trunk, which has no muscle tone. To clear the way to its mouth so it can suckle, the calf will flop its trunk onto its forehead.

A newborn calf suckles for only a few minutes at a time but will suckle many times per day, consuming up to 3 gallons of milk in a single day.

A calf may nurse for up to 2 years of age or older. Complete weaning depends on the disposition of the mother, the amount of available milk, and the arrival of another calf.

Newborn calves learn primarily by observing adults, not from natural instinct. For example, a calf learns how to use its trunk by watching older elephants using their trunks.

It takes several months for a calf to control the use of its trunk. This can be observed as the calf trips over its trunk or as the trunk wiggles like a rubbery object when the calf shakes its head.

Cows are extremely protective of their calves, so keepers must be very careful when working with mothers and their young.

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