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A Syracuse zoo makes history with birth of Asian elephant twins

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photo provided
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Rosamond Gifford Zoo
Male Asian elephant twins were born at Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse Oct. 24, making history as the first successful twin elephant birth in North America.

When Ted Fox, executive director at Rosamond Gifford Zoo, got a call from his staff late on the morning of Oct. 24, he thought they were joking.

Fox had already left the barn where the zoo's female Asian elephant, Mali, had given birth hours earlier to a 220-pound male calf.

Now they were telling Fox a second calf was born.

"We are all so excited, but dumbfounded," Fox said.

Twins make up fewer than 1% of elephant births worldwide. It's happened a few times before in the U.S., but there is no recorded history of both twins surviving.

The second male elephant born in Syracuse was weak at first. He had trouble walking and breathing. Fortunately, the zoo had ordered elephant replacement milk before the births. They have been using that to supplement the calf's meals in his first two weeks.

"Now, he's about 90% on his own mother's milk and nursing really well and he's very strong now," Fox said. "It's amazing to see him play with his brother."

Experts told the Gifford Zoo staff that it is not unusual for a mother elephant to reject a weaker twin, but Fox said Mali has been carefully watching over both her offspring, along with some help from her mother, Targa.

"She's just as attentive to the second, if not maybe a little bit more," he added. This unexpected development is one more reason the zoo has captured global attention.

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Rosamond Gifford Zoo
Twin Asian elephants walk alongside their mother at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse. They are believed to be the first successful twin elephant birth in North America.

Videos have been sent to experts involved in elephant conservation from Canada to as far away as Sri Lanka. Some are even making plans to visit Syracuse.

"This is a lifetime opportunity for [those] that have dedicated their lives to elephants," Fox said.

The baby elephants don't have names yet. The zoo staff are carefully monitoring their health, especially watching for signs of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, a lethal strain of herpes believed to naturally occur among elephants in their natural range as well as those in captivity. The virus is the leading cause of death among young elephants.

Two of Mali's previous offspring, Batu and Ajay, succumbed to the virus in 2020 when they were two and five years old.

Placenta from the twins' birth was sent to Baylor University for research toward the treatment and the development of an EEHV vaccine.

The public can now see the new calves briefly each morning and evening when they are on exhibit at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo's Helga Beck Asian Elephant Preserve, or the Pachyderm Pavilion, depending on the weather.

Viewing times are limited to between 11:00 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m - 2:30 p.m.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.