For Release: April 1, 2007
John Gibbons (202) 633-3083 or (202) 391-4231
Amy Kehs (202) 633-3081 or (202) 309-5543
National Zoo Artificially Inseminates Asian Elephant
Continuing two decades of elephant conservation and research, Smithsonian’s National Zoo elephant experts and a team of veterinary scientists from Germany last night completed the first of what may be three artificial insemination procedures on Shanthi, one of the Zoo’s Asian elephants.
Shanthi is approximately 31 years old, and is the mother of Kandula, the Zoo’s 5-year-old male elephant. Kandula was conceived by artificial insemination conducted by the same team of scientists in February 2000.
National Zoo veterinarians are working alongside Drs. Thomas Hildebrandt and Frank Goeritz from the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, who is conducting the insemination procedures.
It will be about four months—the length of an elephant estrous cycle—before National Zoo scientists can confirm through hormonal analyses if Shanthi has conceived. The gestation period in Asian elephants is approximately 21 months.
A successful artificial insemination depends on accurately predicting the timing of ovulation as well as correct placement of semen into the cervix or uterus. Dr. Janine Brown, an endrocinologist and elephant expert at the National Zoo, has been monitoring Shanthi’s estrous cycles via hormone analyses since 1989. Based on the most recent data, this week’s inseminations coincide with a specific hormone surge that causes ovulation.
National Zoo Chief Veterinarian Dr. Suzan Murray and Dr. Hildebrandt have conducted ultrasound exams on Shanthi to visualize her reproductive tract. Conducting another ultrasound after the final insemination will help the researchers determine whether ovulation took place.
For the artificial insemination procedure, Shanthi is first bathed in warm, soapy water, and then given a warm water enema to cleanse the rectum. Next, researchers use ultrasound to visualize Shanthi’s reproductive tract before Dr. Hildebrandt guides a catheter through the tract, and deposits semen directly into the cervix or uterus. This is a challenging procedure, given that the elephant reproductive tract is over 6 feet long.
The semen used must be collected 12 to 24 hours before the procedure. As part of a collaboration among zoos involved in elephant research, staff at the Tulsa Zoo in Oklahoma, the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation® in Florida are contributing semen from bulls at their institutions. When a sample is collected, staff deliver it immediately to the National Zoo.
This is the ninth attempt to artificially inseminate an elephant at the National Zoo. Dr. Hildebrandt and his collegue Dr. Frank Goritz performed the other eight series of artificial insemination attempts from 1995 to 2000, seven of which were unsuccessful due to poor semen quality and timing. The sixth series of inseminations, performed on Feb. 23 and 24, 2000, resulted in the birth of Kandula in November 2001.
Shanthi was the first elephant artificially inseminated using new catheter and ultrasound techniques developed by Dr. Hildebrandt and his team. In addition, during Shanthi’s previous artificial inseminations, National Zoo scientists refined the hormone analysis technique that now helps them determine the best time for the procedure.
The National Zoo’s research and expertise in hormone analysis techniques has been instrumental in successful artificial inseminations in elephants at other zoological institutions in North America, as well as in other species —the expertise was also instrumental to the successful artificial insemination that led to the Zoo’s giant panda birth on July 9, 2005.
The birth of another Asian elephant at the National Zoo would represent another step toward creating a matriarchal herd of elephants at the National Zoo. The design and implementation of the Zoo’s new elephant exhibit will support such a natural social group. The new exhibit will include habitat variation, innovative community rooms and an active management program—all essential for healthy zoo elephants.
The Zoo is committed to Asian elephant conservation in the wild and in zoos. Breeding at the National Zoo is important because it will bolster the decreasing population of Asian elephants in North America. Maintaining a healthy, self-sustaining zoo population of these endangered animals is an important hedge against their extinction in the wild. Fewer than 30,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, most of which live in small, fragmented populations of fewer than 250 individuals. Populations this small are prone to extinction.
There are also approximately 15,000 domesticated elephants in Asian range countries, many of which live in substandard conditions in logging camps, temples, tourist resorts and other facilities. The research under way at the National Zoo will improve the husbandry, veterinary care and breeding management of those animals as well. National Zoo scientists in Asia are studying and mapping remaining elephant habitat, trying to determine ways to more accurately count wild elephants, and developing methods to reduce the conflict between humans and elephants, which must be addressed if Asian elephants are to survive.
The National Zoo and Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) are helping create widespread public awareness and support for saving these magnificent animals. Part of the costs of this week’s artificial inseminations were paid by funds raised by FONZ’s Adopt A Species program.
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Note to editors: Digital photos of Friday night’s artificial insemination are available from the National Zoo’s public affairs office. No press will be allowed in the Elephant House during the artificial insemination procedures.