Animal welfare groups want the Calgary Zoo to rethink its elephant breeding program, after a three-week-old calf – rejected by her mother – didn't survive.

Keemaya died Tuesday night, despite around-the-clock care from zookeepers trying to save the abandoned elephant.

Keemaya

Zoo staff were continually at the side of the 110-kilogram pachyderm during her short life, and she would cry if they left her. Grief counsellors were brought in to help them with her death.

The zoo faced criticism from those who say that while 14-year-old Maharani may have been physically able to give birth, she may not have been emotionally ready.

Maharani didn't want anything to do with Keemaya – which means miracle in Hindi – from the moment of birth, and wouldn't let her nurse. Rejection is not unusual behaviour in first-time mothers.

"This is the problem: there are no rules," Carol Buckley, with the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, said. "Breeding elephants in captivity is not a science. There's this idea, well, if some survive, let's take the risk, because who really knows what is too young."

Zoo officials say that while Keemaya's death is tragic, the breeding program is necessary to increase the Asian elephant population, and will continue.

"We're going to prove them all wrong, because they're dead wrong," zoo president and CEO Alec Graham said. "It's really important that we participate in a breeding program and the next time we're going to be highly successful."

Clement Lanthier, head of animal care at the zoo, said he hopes Maharani will be ready to breed again sometime next year.

"We know this was a desired breeding, the genetics were right," Sandie Black, head of veterinary services, said. "It was worth a try. Knowing what we've learned, and what we may be able to apply the next time for this same animal, it's probably worth another try."

Richard Faranato, director of the captive wildlife protection program for the humane society in the U.S., says the success rate for breeding elephants in captivity is low, because the animals don't have the same cultural support as in the wild.

"You're talking about a matrilineal line, where you have grandmother, or an older female, or an aunt that is leading a group of female elephants," he said. "And these babies, as they're born into this group, the females will stay with that group and they learn everything the need to know.

"I would submit it's not necessarily a case of what kind of supportive technique you might have if you have an elephant to get pregnant. I would suggest the whole system is flawed because she's not prepared for that birth."

Lanthier says Maharani, who lives with her mother and an aunt, did have cultural support. But he says they may send the younger elephant to another zoo to watch other mothers interact with their young.

Keemaya was named after her death, with a Calgary couple who bought the right consulting with zoo officials and 14 kindergarten children at the CUPS One World Child Development Centre.

Born on Nov. 16, Keemaya's condition went back and forth over the past three weeks.

She was fed formula by hand every few hours, but it doesn't contain the same nutrients and antibodies that would be available in the mother's milk. Orphaned elephants usually have a 50 per cent chance of survival.

Keemaya had problems eating and sleeping after she began teething, and she also had liver problems, an infection and possibly something wrong with her intestines.