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Seattle welcomes baby elephant

The answers to the three most commonly asked questions at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle these days are: 1) 235 pounds; 2) 22 months (the longest pregnancy of any mammal in the world); 3) natural insemination, after her 8,800-pound mother was transported 2,000 miles for a tryst in Missouri.

The questions concern a baby Asian elephant, the first one born at the zoo in its 100-year history.

The 8-week-old elephant has quickly become a local sensation, and her presence has doubled the normal attendance figures and inspired some visitors to wait as long as two hours _ yes, often in the rain at this time of year _ to look at her.

The three questions are: How much did she weigh at birth? How long was she in there? How was she conceived?

The answer to the last question is of particular interest to elephant experts around the world, who consider any successful experiment in breeding an important victory because elephants are endangered, especially the Asian species, whose numbers have declined steadily to about 40,000 in the wild.

The baby elephant in Seattle is one of three Asian elephants born in North American zoos this year, one of which died shortly after birth, said Mike Keele, the coordinator for the elephant species survival program of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Keele, an assistant director at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, said that artificial insemination had worked in only a handful of cases worldwide.

At the Seattle zoo, efforts to artificially inseminate a 21-year-old Asian elephant failed to produce a pregnancy after six years. So in September 1998, the zoo loaded the elephant, whose name is Chai, on a flatbed truck and sent her to the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo. There, Chai met up with Onyx, an 11,000-pound sire.

Female elephants ovulate once every 16 weeks and then have only about a 24-hour window to become pregnant. After the first attempt failed, zoo officials said Chai appeared to enter into a funk in her unfamiliar surroundings and lost about 1,000 pounds. But in the second cycle, in January 1999, she became pregnant and quickly regained the weight.

The 22-month-long gestation ended at 4:48 a.m. on Nov. 3. The birth was captured on a video, which is available at the Seattle zoo's Web site, www.zoo.org.

Another frequent question is this: Does the baby have a name?

Not yet. The zoo plans to have a contest to name the baby in February, David L. Towne, president and director of the zoo, said.

The person who submits the winning name, which Towne said should evoke the elephant's Asian heritage, will receive a trip for two to Thailand, where Chai is from.

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