With only three Asian elephants at the National Zoo—one of whom will be turning a whopping 63 years old this year—the Zoo has embarked on an effort to breed baby elephants to join their crew.
Zoo staff has attempted to artificially inseminate their 34-year-old female elephant Shanthi, using sperm from elephants at the Fort Worth and Tulsa zoos.
Given the sheer size of these animals (up to 11,000 pounds), the task is a big one, to say the least. But it's also highly complex and exacting. We'll spare you the details.
Asian elephants have a three-week cycle of two hormonal surges. They can only become pregnant during the second surge, which is when ovulation occurs. By performing blood tests on Shanthi, Zoo scientists determined the date of her first hormonal surge, and then attempted insemination for a period of four days (September 19-22) about three weeks later in hopes of catching the peak of the second surge.
When it comes to artificial insemination, Shanthi is a trailblazer. In 2001, she gave birth to Kandula, who was only the fifth elephant in the world conceived by artificial insemination.
Scientists will continue to monitor Shanthi's levels of the hormone progesterone throughout the next few weeks. If, ten weeks after insemination, progesterone levels are still up, this will be a solid indicator that the Zoo's efforts have paid off. They will then perform an ultrasound to confirm the pregnancy. Elephant gestation ranges from 20 to 22 months, so it will still be a while yet before Shanthi would give birth to a new calf.
The Zoo reports that the new Asian elephant habitat, Elephant Trails, has room enough for ten adult elephants and their young. For now, you can see Shanthi, her son Kandula and Ambika, the Zoo's wise older elephant, exploring their new digs, which just opened earlier this month.