Mara the elephant slowly gets back on her feet

Chunichi Shimbun

Treatment for Mara, a baby female elephant with fractures in both of her front legs, continues at the Toyohashi Zoo and Botanical Park in Aichi Prefecture.

Japan doesn’t have prior experience dealing with bone fractures afflicting an Asian elephant. More than four months have passed since Mara was diagnosed, and under 24/7 supervision by her keepers she has finally recovered enough for her leg braces to be removed.

Residents of Toyohashi have shown great support for the baby elephant.

The next phase in Mara’s rehabilitation will involve getting her into a pool so she can practice walking with the aid of her natural buoyancy.

“How are you feeling today, Mara?” her caretakers greet her as they enter her cage at 11 a.m. every day and continue the rehabilitation process.

Mara weighs 500 kg and it takes 10 people to raise her to a standing position. They wrap a sling around her belly and lift her up to prevent her from putting any pressure on her front legs.

The elephant was born on Sept. 17, 2011, the fourth successful birth in captivity in Japan and the first in the Chubu region.

Mara grew up healthy and when the public finally got to see her she was a big hit with visitors. She celebrated her first birthday last year.

But on Jan. 28, veterinarians found through X-rays that her front legs were broken. They had been suspicious something was wrong with her legs as it gradually became evident that she wasn’t walking normally after she tripped and injured her legs last autumn.

Abandoned by her mother after birth, Mara was raised on regular milk. The risk of fractures is higher for calfs growing up without their mother’s milk, according to the zoo. After the diagnosis, braces were immediately put on Mara’s front legs and she was not allowed to stand up.

It is in the nature of four-legged animals to try to stand on their legs regardless of the circumstances and Mara was no exception. Unfortunately, that would delay her recovery and could even lead to injuring her hind legs as well.

“It is difficult, but we are persevering,” said Nanae Imada, the veterinarian in charge of Mara’s rehabilitation. A total of 30 keepers and three veterinarians took it in turns to watch over the young elephant day and night.

The staff used ultrasonic therapy for humans on Mara and gave her plenty of vitamins. When the broken bones started to heal in February, physical rehabilitation was started by lifting her up with ropes and getting her to stand for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Her keepers were afraid that “she would grow to mistrust human beings” after her rehab exercises, in which she was forced to stand with the help of various equipment.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen as she has constantly been surrounded by humans since birth. Her bones were completely healed by April and the leg braces were removed in May.

The park invited two experts on Asian elephants, including Sittidet Mahasawangkul, 45, chief of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center’s elephant hospital, to come to Japan for three days in May. They examined Mara and reviewed her treatment plan.

“They are doing a great job. The zoo made the best choices,” the Thai veterinarian said. Both experts praised the zoo for identifying and treating the bone fractures promptly.

Since the braces were removed, Mara has often been seen moving her legs as if attempting to stand on her own. However, the risk of her muscles being too weak and causing another fracture is still high, so her keepers have to pay close attention to her activities, even at night.

She will begin her pool rehabilitation from the middle of June, the first such attempt in Japan.

“We’ll work together to help her recover as soon as possible,” said keeper Yasuhiro Hirai.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published June 3.

  • Barbara Lovett

    When the mother abandoned this poor baby, why weren’t the real elephant experts consulted on the best milk formula for this baby? It is well known that “regular” milk is not good for baby elephants. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust are experts and could have easily been consulted. The poor nutrition obviously left the baby vulnerable to bone breaks. I’m encouraged to see the zoo going the extra mile to save the baby, but the interest is in getting this baby out to the public to make money. If it had been an older elephant, no doubt it would have been euthanized with broken legs. Zoos are no place for elephants!

  • merrywriter

    Elephant are herbivores. They do not digest cow’s milk well. Mara is not getting enough calcium to her bones. Her growth and the weight that comes with it will continue to break her bones. TECC has an elephant like this that they let languish for months knowing it did not have a chance. These are no experts. The zoo should call Daphne Sheldrick in Nairobi. She is THE most experienced person in the world raising baby elephants and has created a formula for them so their bones will grow strong. Of course, those babies at Sheldrick’s get to forage and that also helps them with calcium needs. Zoos should not be breeding in the first place, this is not conservation; it puts no elephants back in the wild, this is to have more money making babies in zoos. Elephants do not belong in zoos, zoos never have adequate room for them. Mark my words, this baby is not going to thrive and they will eventually have to put it down after months or years of suffering.