Wild elephant populations all over the world are threatened with extinction. Most people don’t realize that populations of elephants in zoos in North America are threatened with extinction as well. Current estimates show that many female elephants of reproductive age do not have normal enough reproductive cycles to become pregnant. The reasons for this are not yet completely understood, and it is not yet known if this is the same in the wild.
If the current status of breeding elephants does not change, it is estimated that the population will be genetically extinct in less than 40 years. To be genetically extinct means to have a population that will have post-reproductive females and inter-related family groups. Such populations cannot be interbred due to inbreeding concerns and lack of available reproductive females. It is important that zoos work together and commit to helping to solve this problem by bringing the population to a self-sustaining level. Bringing the North American population to a self-sustaining level can be accomplished through carefully planned breeding of reproductive-aged elephants.
Having offspring and raising them in proper family units is absolutely intrinsic to an elephant’s natural life cycle. One only need spend a few minutes watching an elephant mother with her calf to understand how natural and important this process is to the social and mental well-being of elephants. To deny elephants the opportunity to breed not only prevents them from experiencing one of the most basic components of any animal’s life but also can lead to various reproductive tract pathologies that can trigger later health issues.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, the North American population of elephants can help provide invaluable research opportunities that assist both wild and captive populations of elephants around the world. Important breeding between members of the North American African elephant population can be accomplished in zoos through natural means, introducing a male and female together, or through artificial insemination.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore participates within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Species Survival Plan (SSP)/Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) for elephants. Species survival plans are cooperative population management and conservation programs for selected species in zoos and aquariums in North America. Species are selected based on many different criteria such as reproductive age and health, genetics, habitat space and care, and animal behavior. Each SSP manages the breeding of a species in order to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. These plans also include research, public education, reintroduction programs, and field projects.
In 2003 the SSP/TAG for African elephants had recommended Dolly for possible breeding attempts because of her genetic lineage. Based on their particular genetic histories, four to six males were selected as breeding partners. However, Dolly is close to the upper age restrictions to be a first time mother. It was therefore important to attempt to get her pregnant as quickly as possible to help ensure her long-term health and the success of the pregnancy.
At that time, The Maryland Zoo did not have a male elephant to pursue natural breeding opportunities. Artificial insemination (AI) was a logical solution, proven to be effective for impregnating females when no in-house males are available. The method is expensive and requires a great deal of training, staff expertise, and analysis of blood work for hormone levels needed to produce a successful pregnancy. AI was attempted through 2006 when our long-range plans for our continuing breeding program were reevaluated.
Artificial insemination (AI) is a complicated and technical process. The window of opportunity for elephant breeding is very brief. Females come into their reproductive cycles every three to four months for two to four days. They are only able to become pregnant during this particular time.
Before AI can be attempted, the time of ovulation must be accurately predicted. This is done by drawing blood samples on a daily basis at specific times to map the reproductive cycle through analysis of progesterone and luteinizing hormones (LH). At a specific point in the reproductive hormone cycle, an initial peak of Luteinizing Hormone (LH) is released into the blood. This is the first event in predicting the timing of ovulation. Later a second surge of LH takes place. It is this second surge that triggers ovulation.
The time between the first and second LH surges varies from 18 to 24 days depending on the elephant but is usually consistent for each elephant. For example, Dolly’s LH peaks are consistently 19 days apart. The AI procedure must occur around the time of the second LH peak. Advances in techniques and data analysis have allowed us to better understand the elephant reproductive system and have created a successful way to produce more pregnancies.
The artificial insemination procedure is very precise and requires the elephant to stand relatively still. First, a specially designed balloon catheter is inserted into the urogenital canal and guided up to the pelvic rim. Although this sounds invasive the tube is quite small in comparison to a natural breeding with a male. Also, the elephants are trained to accept the procedure willingly or else it is not performed. At any time in the training the elephant can choose to walk away if she becomes nervous or uncomfortable.
The urogenital canal is over three feet long. A video-chip endoscope is placed through the balloon catheter. The endoscope helps the guiding process through use of a small camera and directs the placement of the catheter in the proper spot. The endoscope is placed close to the cervical opening and the donated semen sample is slowly introduced through the catheter.
Another complication to this procedure is that elephant semen does not remain viable for more than one day. Therefore, the semen samples must be collected the same day as the insemination procedure. Once collected, the sample is flown to the zoo and tested upon arrival for motility and concentration. If lucky, everything will come together perfectly to produce a pregnancy and, 22 months later, a new elephant calf.
This entire procedure can be as quick as 7 minutes to complete and the elephants are trained to stand patiently for extended periods of time and are fed treats during the entire process. It is far more stressful on the staff members who work diligently and passionately to have this one opportunity to help the elephants experience a very natural part of life: pregnancy and calf rearing.
Artificial insemination efforts are being undertaken jointly by many zoos and specialists in order to strengthen the North American elephant population. It is important to have a healthy, genetically diverse population for future generations. By observing and studying captive elephant populations, we can contribute to scientific knowledge of elephants that can be used in conservation efforts worldwide.
Even more importantly, by having a strong and vibrant population of African elephants in North America, we can give people who will never have the chance to travel to Africa an opportunity to see and experience elephants firsthand. By having elephants for people in North America to meet and experience, zoos can help foster a strong connection to these amazing animals in the hope that we can all join together to save them in their wild habitat. Seeing them on television or on a computer monitor pales in comparison to the real thing and fails to help people establish an emotional bond with these amazing animals. It only takes a few minutes to see the effect that an elephant can have on people when they get the chance to see them in person. You may not think twice about elephants before you meet them, but after you do, you will never forget them.
The elephant section of this site was made possible by a gift from C.J. Miller LLC