News Column

Pittsburgh Zoo at forefront of effort to bolster elephant population

August 12, 2014

By John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Aug. 12--In the last decade in Africa, ivory poachers have eliminated some 70 percent of the wild elephant population. In zoos around the world, natural reproduction and artificial insemination are difficult.

But at zoos in Austria and England, two baby elephants were artificially fathered with sperm gathered from South African wild elephants in a project spearheaded by international partners including the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. For the first time, elephant genetic material gathered in the wild was frozen and used to artificially inseminate captive cow elephants that delivered calves.

In the past, attempts to freeze elephant semen samples for artificial insemination was not successful.

The process is still experimental but considered promising by international elephant conservation groups who today are celebrating World Elephant Day to draw attention to the plight of wild elephants.

Project Frozen Dumbo is a partnership among the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Vienna Zoo and ZooParc de Beauval in France. It originated through discussions between Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo, and Thomas Hildebrandt, a reproductive specialist at the Leibniz Institute.

"The success of this procedure creates more opportunities to introduce new genetics into the African elephant population among zoos, diversifying the population and ensuring its ability to grow into the future," Ms. Baker said in a statement.

In 2011, teams from the Pittsburgh Zoo and Leibniz Institute, including Ms. Baker and Mr. Hildebrandt, traveled to the Phinda Resource Reserve in South Africa to help wildlife researchers to tranquilize and collect sperm from 15 wild bull elephants. The material was frozen using Mr. Hildebrandt's process, which led to the two successful births in Europe in 2013 and 2014. A third elephant inseminated through the process is now pregnant at another zoo in England.

"It's monumental," said Willie Theison, elephant program manager at the Pittsburgh Zoo, who accompanied Ms. Baker on the African expedition. "Previous attempts at collecting and freezing [wild elephant] semen in the U.S. and Europe didn't work. We were looking for a wide age group -- they handpicked specific bull elephants from 12 to 30 years old for our program."

Frozen Dumbo has the support of elephant conservation groups including the International Elephant Foundation.

"This has been done in other species, but never before in elephants," said the foundation's executive director, Deborah Olson. She was not involved in the expedition but assisted the Pittsburgh Zoo in an unsuccessful attempt to ship the frozen semen from France to the United States for use in American zoos.

Getting wild genetics into the international zoo population may be crucial to the survival of the species, said Mr. Theison.

With rampant deforestation in Africa and poachers profiting from a thriving Asian market for ivory trinkets, the wild elephant population has dropped from about 1.5 million in 2004 to between 300,000 and 400,000 animals.

For about 30 years, international zoos have exchanged elephants in a largely unsuccessful breeding program. One of the few successful bull studs is the Pittsburgh Zoo's Jackson, who has sired offspring throughout the U.S.

But Jackson's DNA is "almost over-represented" among the captive elephant population, said Mr. Theison. Artificial insemination has been successful, but the cooled semen has a limited shelf life. The short-term solution to long-term elephant survival, he said, is to get fresh genes into the captive elephant DNA pool by freezing wild samples and sending them to zoos all over the world.

Jackson's prolific breeding and Ms. Baker's leadership in Project Frozen Dumbo has put the Pittsburgh Zoo near the vanguard of the elephant conservation movement. The zoo participates in the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums' 96 Elephants campaign, which draws attention to a startling statistic: 96 wild elephants are poached every day.

Mr. Theison said he hopes to pair a 14-year-old female with a potential suitor this year, and at the zoo's 724-acre International Conservation Center in Somerset County elephants and other animals roam relatively free with virtually no spectators in another attempt at encouraging natural breeding. Plans are underway for another Frozen Dumbo expedition, this time to collect and freeze elephant semen in Botswana.

John Hayes: 412-263-1991, jhayes@post-gazette.com.

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Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)


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