“While I was schlepping a barrow of elephant dung, a passing visitor said, ‘These zoo people always look so damn happy!’ It’s true – I love my job.” – Hannah Schleicher, Zookeeper at Schönbrunn Zoo
The first elephant ever born in a zoo was born at Schönbrunn in 1906. The oldest zoo in the world has also made recent history, conceiving the first elephant in the world from frozen sperm, taken from a wild bull in Africa as part of a project from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.
Now almost five, little Iqhwa — named for the Zulu word for “ice” — is the youngest member of the all-female five-elephant clan at the zoo. Her name belies her spitfire personality. “As the baby, she’s a bit spoiled,” her youngest caretaker, Hannah Schleicher, 30, explained. “She’ll often just snatch the latest treats right out of her mom’s mouth – which Mama allows.”
The last attempt to introduce a male was not so successful. Two years ago, Shaka, a 25-year-old bull, was transferred from the Duisberg Zoo, but the ladies were not impressed. “The chemistry was just not there. The Wiener Mäderl (“Viennese gals”) were not won over by his German charm,” said Schleicher, who helped Shaka adjust to his new home at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in England a few months ago.
Endangered species in European zoos are overseen by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, which distributes males and females. Like a dating service, sometimes it’s just not a match. In the past decade, the world’s population of African elephants has declined by about a fourth, the worst in the past quarter-century.
Having only females has maintained a certain harmony, as the annual mating period, when male elephants can exhibit aggressive behavior, is not an issue. However, like the males, females have their own hier-archies. Iqhwa’s mother, Tonga, leads the dominant group; they and Iqhwa’s older sister, Mongu, are the first up at feeding time.
Despite the current matriarchal harmony among the elephants, zookeepers must adhere to strict security guidelines. Fatal accidents in many zoos, including one in which an experienced zookeeper at Schönbrunn was killed by an elephant 13 years ago, have led to a complete overhaul of safety procedures.
Schleicher, who joined the zoo three years ago, has a strong connection with the female elephants, despite having to work with them through a secure barrier. The zookeepers perform bonding tasks such as feeding, medical checks and even nail-filing.The girls – human and elephant alike – don’t seem to mind the barriers at all.