SEATTLE – With the goal of ensuring a future for elephants in zoos and in their range countries, Woodland Park Zoo and a visiting expert in elephant reproduction performed an artificial insemination procedure last night on Chai, the zoo’s 32-year-old Asian elephant.
Semen for the procedure was contributed by a 13-year-old bull at ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque, N.M. With no offspring to date, the bull is genetically valuable to the North American population of elephants.
“It will be approximately 15 to 16 weeks before we can confirm a pregnancy by ultrasound and through hormonal changes in Chai,” explained Dr. Nancy Hawkes, the zoo’s general curator and resident expert in elephant reproduction. The gestation period for elephants is 22 months. “If Chai is pregnant, we would expect her to give birth in late 2013.”
Dr. Dennis Schmitt, a leading expert in elephant reproductive physiology and a professor of animal science at Missouri State University, joined the zoo’s elephant management and animal health staff in performing the artificial insemination.
Chai has been inseminated with this state-of-the art and proven technique during 10 ovulation cycles since 2005 but only one has resulted in a pregnancy. “Her pregnancy in 2008, unfortunately, ended in an early miscarriage, which is not uncommon in mammals, especially during the first trimester,” said Hawkes.
The artificial insemination procedure is performed without the use of any sedatives or other drugs in a specialized chute that is used for health evaluations. “All of the zoo’s elephants are trained to enter the chute for routine husbandry and medical care. Our expert elephant keepers have invested hours of training, over many years, preparing Chai for the procedure,” said Bruce Upchurch, the zoo’s curator of elephants.
“Chai’s health and well being come first,” added Upchurch. “We pay very close attention to her cues and she can choose to participate or not. If she showed any signs of discomfort in the chute and with the procedure, we wouldn’t proceed.”
During the 15-minute procedure, the keepers provided Chai with lots of attention and buckets of favorite treats such as apples, carrots and chunks of pumpkin. “Chai was calm throughout the procedure. She enjoys the extra personal attention and loves her treats,” said Upchurch.
Hawkes said that animal welfare is the principal goal of the zoo and its effort to inseminate Chai. “It’s enriching for the herd to include calves and this technique allows us to help females get pregnant without needing to transport them to another institution that houses bulls, spending months away from their home and social group,” said Hawkes.
The technology was developed less than 20 years ago by scientists at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research of Berlin. Because female elephants have a very complex reproductive system, it combines endoscope-guided technology with precise hormonal and ultrasound data to pinpoint ovulation and time the procedures accordingly. More than 20 elephant calves have been born over the last 10 years through artificial insemination.
Woodland Park Zoo remains committed to sustaining a genetically healthy population of elephants in zoos by participating in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for elephants. SSPs are cooperative breeding programs to help ensure genetic diversity and demographic stability of endangered species in North American zoos and aquariums.
The Elephant Taxon Advisory Group and SSP, which is under the auspices of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), provides a comprehensive strategy that spans veterinary research, public education and field conservation projects. Its mission is to promote a strong future for African and Asian elephant populations. That group has recommended breeding Chai as part of its overall plan to preserve the species.
Chai was the mother of Hansa, a female elephant who was born at the zoo in 2000 and died unexpectedly at 6½ years old from a newly discovered elephant herpesvirus. “A baby would help us begin to re-build a multigenerational social group here at the zoo,” said Hawkes.
In the wild, elephants continue to face extreme pressure from conflicts with humans. “The role of zoos is more critical now than ever before,” said Marc Ancrenaz, director of the Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation project. “In zoos accredited by AZA, elephants play an important role as conservation emissaries. Seeing, hearing, and experiencing these striking animals up close can help zoo-goers make an emotional connection and be inspired to take action to protect elephants in the wild.”
Because of veterinary advancements in AZA-accredited zoos, artificial insemination is now being practiced in Asia; contraceptive drugs and techniques are available as an alternative to culling; and tuberculosis tests and drugs are safely implemented worldwide. Similarly, the study of pheromones and breeding behavior, low frequency and olfactory communication, DNA testing to track poached ivory, and cognitive ability were first identified and studied on elephants in zoos.
From Borneo and Sri Lanka to the Tarangire National Forest in Tanzania, Woodland Park Zoo supports on-ground elephant conservation and research projects such as the Hutan Elephant Conservation project.
Woodland Park Zoo currently participates in more than 70 AZA conservation programs. The programs also involve a variety of other collaborative conservation activities such as research, public education, reintroduction and field projects.
All of the elephants at Woodland Park Zoo are female. In addition to Chai, the other members of the herd are 44-year-old Asian elephant Bamboo and 42-year-old African elephant Watoto.
For more information about Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant program, visit www.zoo.org/elephants