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Zoo tries again to artificially inseminate elephant Chai

June 9th, 2011 · Comments

The Woodland Park Zoo yesterday performed an artificial insemination procedure on Chai, the zoo’s 32-year-old Asian elephant. The zoo says the semen used for the procedure was from a 13-year-old bull at Albuquerque Biological Park Zoo. It will be about 15-16 weeks before the zoo can confirm if Chai becomes pregnant from the procedure. The gestation period for elephants is 22 months.

Photo by Dennis Dow, Woodland Park Zoo.

From the zoo’s press release:

Chai has been inseminated with this proven technique during nine ovulation cycles since 2005 but only one has resulted in a pregnancy. The pregnancy, in 2008, unfortunately ended in an early miscarriage, which is not uncommon in mammals, especially during the first trimester.

“Artificially inseminating an elephant is a technique that enhances animal welfare,” said Dr. Nancy Hawkes, the zoo’s general curator and resident expert in elephant reproduction. 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.

“The new technology was developed less than 20 years ago by scientists at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research of Berlin,” explained Hawkes. “Because female elephants have a very complex reproductive system, we combine 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.

“A baby would help us begin to re-build a multigenerational social group here at the zoo,” said Hawkes. 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.

As elephants in the wild continue to face extreme pressure from conflicts with humans, elephants in zoos are effective conservation ambassadors for their cousins in the wild. “As the pressures of habitat loss and human-elephant conflicts continue to escalate at an alarming rate, 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 the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, 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.”

The group called Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants today issued its own press release, stating that the risk of passing along the herpesvirus again was too great.

From Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants’ press release:

WPZ is a herpes-infected environment. WPZ’s records for Watoto dated May 5, 2008 state Watoto tested “positive for EEHV3a virus in her blood.”

Dr. Jennifer Conrad, DVM, an expert elephant veterinarian said: “Woodland Park Zoo is a herpes exposed facility and therefore the zoo should no longer engage in an Asian elephant breeding program. The simple truth is the risk of death for the offspring is too great.”

There is no cure for EEHV and WPZ has no infection control in place. Chai could pass the herpesvirus to her own fetus.

Elephant herpesvirus attacks the internal organs causing massive hemorrhaging and a painful, gruesome death. “To even take a chance of causing another defenseless calf such a horrific death is unconscionable and unethical” says Nancy Pennington, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. Herpesvirus is not a threat to wild elephants.

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