Sydney's premier zoo is celebrating the news that its 9-year-old Asian elephant is pregnant, but animal rights groups are shocked that the zoo has let a juvenile elephant fall pregnant.
Allowing such a young elephant to fall pregnant was "the equivalent of allowing your 12-year-old daughter to become pregnant," said Erica Martin, Asia Pacific Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
"It is completely irresponsible," Martin said in a statement on Thursday. Martin said that under captive breeding plans elephants should be at least 11-years-old before conceiving.
But news of the pregnancy of the endangered Asian elephant delighted Taronga Zoo, as the birth would be the first by a captive elephant in Australia.
"The zoo is proud to announce this historic event," Guy Cooper, director of Taronga Zoo, said in a statement on Thursday.
Ultra sound images show the elephant Thong Dee is 5 months into her 22 month pregnancy. The images identify a 10cm fetus with the beginnings of a spine, front and hind legs. However it is too early to determine whether the fetus is male or female.
"The well-being of all animals in our care is of paramount importance and our breeding programs are carefully managed to exacting standards that ensure our specialist staff employ the latest advice and scientific research," said Cooper.
Thong Dee was a part of a group of 8 Asian elephants imported from Thailand in November 2006. The group arrived amid protest from animal welfare groups who criticized their captivity.
Animal rights groups said on Thursday that there was little conservation benefit in Thong Dee's pregnancy and that the young elephant faced health risks.
"We know that calves born in zoos have double the mortality rate in the wild, and this pregnancy will put both mother and calf at great risk.," Bidda Jones, chief scientist with Australia's Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RSCPA).
"Still birth, infanticide and rejection of calves are the main causes of infant mortality and Thong Dee's age and lack of maternal and social experience make this pregnancy very risky," Jones said in a statement.
Taronga Conservation Society Australia said the female elephants, Porntip, Pak Boon, Tang Mo and Thong Dee, were assessed by reproductive specialists from Germany and found they were eligible for breeding.
The zoo said the earliest Asian Elephant pregnancy in a European zoo was five and a half years.