National Zoo Artificially Inseminates Asian Elephant

Veterinarians and animal care staff conducted a series of artificial insemination procedures this week on Shanthi, one of the Asian elephants at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. A successful pregnancy is an important milestone in the Zoo’s commitment to Asian elephant conservation.

National Zoo staff worked alongside veterinarians Robert Hermes and Frank Goeritz from the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, who conducted the insemination procedures June 3 and 4. Scientists will monitor the level of the hormone progesterone in Shanthi’s blood. If concentrations remain elevated past 10 weeks after insemination, it most likely means she is pregnant, which will be confirmed by an ultrasound. An Asian elephant’s gestation period ranges from 20 to 22 months.

Artificially inseminating an elephant is a challenging and difficult medical procedure, and in order for it to be successful, several things have to take place. First, the elephant must have a healthy reproductive tract. Also, the semen used for the procedure must be of good quality and needs to be placed correctly in the cervix and/or uterus. Finally, the artificial insemination must be timed properly: Elephants have two surges of luteinizing hormone in about a three-week period. Using blood samples, scientists are able to detect when the first surge, which does not induce ovulation, occurs. The second luteinizing hormone surge, which does induce ovulation, follows about 20 days later, and that is when the artificial insemination is done.

Shanthi, who is approximately 33 years old, gave birth to Kandula in 2001. He was the fifth elephant in the world conceived by artificial insemination. Through past artificial insemination procedures done with Shanthi, National Zoo scientists collected information that led to a greater understanding of elephant reproduction. For example, National Zoo reproductive physiologist Janine Brown discovered that elephants have a double luteinizing hormone surge, which turned out to be vital for the proper timing of the artificial insemination.

An elephant birth would bolster the decreasing population of Asian elephants in North America and is an important step toward creating a multigenerational herd at the National Zoo. The Zoo is currently expanding its elephant exhibit to accommodate such a social grouping. Elephant Trails, scheduled to open in 2011, will feature additional space and a walking trail for the elephants, in addition to a large indoor habitat with soft flooring.

National Zoo scientists have studied Asian elephants in the wild for nearly 40 years in an effort to prevent their extinction. Fewer than 30,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. Another 15,000 domesticated elephants are found in Asian range countries, many of them living in substandard conditions in logging camps, temples, tourist resorts and other facilities.