Great Expectations

Elephant researchers believe they can boost captive-animal reproduction rates and reverse a potential population crash in zoos.

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In October 1995, the National Zoo attempted its first artificial insemination on an Asian elephant named Shanthi, using new technology designed by Berlin’s Institute for Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research. Along endoscope, which was equipped with fiber optics and contained a catheter that was guided by ultrasound, successfully delivered sperm. But Zoo scientists missed the elephant’s estrus by four days. In reviewing Shanthi’s case, however, Brown discovered a hormone that spikes three weeks before a female becomes fertile. This finding now allows researchers to pinpoint estrus with a simple blood test.


The first successful birth following artificial insemination took place in November 1999 at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, when Moola, an Asian elephant, gave birth to a male named Haji. (He died from the herpes virus two and a half years later.) In 2001, Shanthi became the second artificially inseminated captive Asian elephant to deliver a calf. Despite the technical challenges and costs, ranging between $10,000 and $15,000 per event, artificial insemination offers the best way of increasing the birthrate in the short run, says Dennis Schmitt, an animal science professor at SouthwestMissouriStateUniversity, who, along with Brown, is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the procedure. “It’s not the answer, but a tool,” he says.


Dohani’s death, the way some experts see it, can be attributed to his mother’s experience—or lack of it. Lisa came to the Oakland Zoo in 1976 when she was about 6 months old, after being captured in South Africa. She never had the chance to learn how to be a mother. In the wild, a female elephant grows up with her mother and aunts, watching as they give birth roughly every four to five years and observing how they care for their young. In fact, females in the wild assist one another during birth, and later engage in a form of collective baby-sitting called “allomothering,” in which they protect, play with and sometimes even nurse the others’ offspring. Wild elephants have even been observed crowding a reluctant mother, forcing her to be still so her calf can nurse, or disciplining mothers that are too rough with a baby.

“None of that background and learning happens when you take a young female who is maybe 6 months of age out of the wild,” says Joel Parrott, the Oakland Zoo’s executive director. Among captive elephants, reluctant mothers are not uncommon. Deborah Olson, director of conservation and science at the Indianapolis Zoo, recalls the case of an aggressive new mother that tried repeatedly to kill her newborn. “It took us three weeks to convince her that this baby was a wonderful thing,” Olson says. Researchers don’t know if such maternal aggression occurs in the wild.


At the Oakland Zoo, Lisa had been so aggressive toward her first live calf, Kijana, born in 1995, that zoo staff raised the baby by hand. In general, calves separated from their mothers at birth don’t survive. Kijana proved no exception, dying at 11 months of herpes. So when Lisa became pregnant with Dohani, staff members attempted to prepare her for motherhood by creating an elephant baby doll, which they stuffed and placed near Lisa so she would get used to sharing her space with a smaller creature; they trained her to lift a foreleg on cue so a calf could reach her nipples. Even so, Kinzley recalls that it took Lisa several days to learn how to help Dohani stand, which Lisa did with a push of her foot and trunk.


Dohani’s death also cuts to the core of a current debate among zookeepers about how best to work with elephants. The more traditional elephant management method, called free contact, comes from ancient Indian customs in which handlers share the same space and freely touch the animals using a hooked stick, or ankus, to direct them.


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