A 297lb baby takes her first bow at the zoo

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Chester Zoo will reveal its new baby elephant to the public tomorrow. Born just before Christmas after a 636-day pregnancy, she drinks 12 litres a day of the powdered milk used for human babies, and has put on 30kg (66lb) in just four weeks and now weighs 135kg (297lb).

The Asiatic elephant baby, whose name will be chosen by viewers of the BBC's Blue Peter programme, was shown off to the press yesterday. She has been rejected by her mother, Thi, but is thriving and lively, and has been ''partially integrated'' with the eight-strong herd at Chester.

''The senior females have been supportive so we're hoping she will fit in well,'' said the zoo's marketing manager, Chris Vere. Meanwhile keepers are maintaining a 24-hour watch, even sleeping beside her.

The baby is only the second Asiatic elephant to have been born, and to have survived the critical first four weeks, in a British zoo. The first was also born at Chester; he is now 18 and still resident.

There are between 34,000 and 51,000 of the species left in the wild, about one-tenth the number of the larger African elephant, and the population is falling fast. Even Asia's domesticated elephant population, used for shifting wood and other heavy tasks, is dwindling rapidly in an increasingly mechanised world.

The Asiatic species used to roam from Syria to China, but today its range only stretches from India to Vietnam, with a cut-off group of less than 300 in Yunnan province, China. The numbers in Vietnam are thought to have fallen by three-quarters in 25 years, down to between 300 and 400.

The elephant's forest habitats are disappearing because of logging and farming clearances. Poachers kill the animal for its hides, teeth and ivory. Rising human occupation around its forests leads to increasing conflict between the animals - which trample fields in search of crops - and impoverished farmers. Up to 300 Indians are killed by the elephants each year.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says the Asiatic elephant has no future in the wild without a concerted effort to preserve its habitats and avert conflicts with people.

There is controversy about how useful a role zoos like Chester can have in saving the species. Mr Vere said that if the Asiatic elephant became extinct in the wild then it could survive in captivity and be reintroduced to the wild, provided that a sufficient area of its forests could be maintained or recreated.

But conservationists doubt whether such a large, social animal could ever make a successful transition from zoo enclosures back to nature. A spokeswoman for the WWF said: "The answer must be to protect their wild habitat.''