by Nhu Phu
|Close encounter: Nguyen Thanh Phuong fondles a tiger cub. Giving it formula is Phuong's daily work. — VNS File Photos
As the mother hippo gives birth to her baby, bites the umbilical cord and licks the blood on its body before offering the baby her breast, Duong Thanh Phi's face is a picture of happiness.
For the director of the Dai Nam Tourism Area's Zoo, witnessing dangerous animals produce the miracle of life is the best part of his job.
"Can you see? The small hippo has emerged from its mother and is now beginning to feed," says Phi, eyes glistening as he shows me the video of a hippo in the zoo giving birth.
To gain the footage, Phi and many other employees must pitch a tent near the hippo's lake and stay up all night to capture the magical moment.
Considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, Phi's team have to be on their guard against the hippo and keep the tent at a safe distance.
Two days before the hippo gave birth, she started refusing food and began to leak amnion fluid.
After extensive research on the hippo's reproduction habits, Phi firmly believed that it would give birth under water so kept his eyes firmly fixed on the pond, ready to act at a moment's notice.
"She kept thrashing around the water for hours and we expected birth to be soon," said Phi.
But after a day, the hippo still hadn't breached, so Phi and his colleagues began to worry. They considered complications such as the foetus not lying in the proper position, or being too big for the mother to bear.
They began planning schemes to help the mother hippo, ranging from injecting birth stimulus medicines to enlarging its sex organ.
"To my surprise, the hippo suddenly left the water and started to contract every muscle. As the small hippo's head appeared, everyone was delighted." said Phi.
"The small hippo was born within two minutes, but such a short moment brought great happiness to us," he added.
Mai Xuan Tinh, one of Phi's colleague said he was as happy as when his wife gave birth.
So far 12 different animals have given birth successfully at the zoo, which is home to 65 species and around 500 individuals.
On the day the mother hippo gave birth, other animals including monkeys also bore infants.
Meanwhile, zookeepers are busy planning for their next big operation as both a white tiger and white lion are currently pregnant.
At first the zoo only had nine tigers, five males and four females, but they have now bred to such an extent that some of the tigers have grandchildren.
"In the zoo, tiger is the most fecund animal," said Phi.
A male and female can copulate for five-seven days continuously, while a female tiger can bear five cubs in one farrow. After giving birth, many she-tigers do not have enough milk, so the zoo employees prepare a special formula for the litter.
|Nature's way: Nguyen Van Dien bathes mother and baby hippos only days after witnessing the birth.
This is the job of 27-year-old Nguyen Thanh Phuong.
Phuong said that he's witnessed tigers giving birth on three occasions - the most recent was just four months ago.
"Before feeding the small tiger with the bottle, I had to rub straw with the mother tiger's smell time and again on my hand to trick it," he said.
Wild beasts are normally fierce, and when they have children they become even more aggressive, so the zoo's employees have to be constantly on their toes.
One zoo member revealed that despite cutting the grass to feed hippos for years, he is still terrified to stand near the animal when it has given birth.
Meanwhile, when feeding the small tigers with a bottle, the zookeepers should always lead the mother tigers to another cages, said Phuong.
"The bigger the tiger is, the more careful the employee should be," he added.
And this is more than just a threat; in September 2009, an employee of the zoo was savagely killed by a tiger while planting trees in its cage. — VNS