Sunday, October 03, 2010

..Elephant breeding topic of conference held at zoo..

October 2nd, 2010 • Related • Filed Under

Filed Under: North America

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A playful squabble between 2-year-olds rolling in the dirt turns rough, so mom steps in because one is sitting on the other’s head.

Such antics are a normal occurrence in the elephant yard at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, but this time they were in the international spotlight as the zoo hosts the 31st annual Elephant Managers Association conference this weekend.

The EMA is a group of elephant professionals, veterinarians, researchers and enthusiasts, said EMA president Andrew Smith, who works at the Memphis Zoo.

“We consider ourselves the experts in the elephant industry, and the membership has a phenomenal background in elephant management and research,” he said.

They hold the conference each year to bounce ideas off one another and listen to presentations on all different aspects of animal care. Members are able to learn, ask questions, network and essentially grow as an industry, Mr. Smith said.

He was especially thankful that the conference is being held at the Pittsburgh Zoo because of its highly regarded elephant facilities and program.

“We are incredibly excited to have this group of people,” said zoo president and CEO Barbara Baker. “Such a big caliber of scientists and elephant managers all in one place is amazing.”

Thomas Hildebrandt, the head of the Reproduction Management Department of the Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research center in Berlin was one of 140 representatives from five continents, six countries and 26 zoos in attendance.

Dr. Hildebrandt has been working with Dr. Baker and other elephant managers from the Pittsburgh Zoo and other zoos on “Project Frozen Dumbo.”

Elephants are no longer imported from the wild and taken to zoos. To sustain elephants in captivity now, zoos must focus their efforts on their own breeding. But, Dr. Hildebrandt says, with the exception of the Pittsburgh Zoo, breeding in the U.S. has been relatively unsuccessful.

So the team came up with Project Frozen Dumbo: They would collect semen samples from wild male elephants and bring them back to the states for artificial insemination.

“From time to time we have to immobilize them anyway to check their health status or move them to a different area, and these opportunities are ideal for semen collection,” Dr. Hildebrandt said.

After only half an hour, scientists have the sample they need with no health risk to the elephant. The sample is kept in cold storage and can stay there for up to 3,000 years, so there is no time stamp on using it, either.

As an added bonus, Dr. Baker said, “It’s a lot easier to move around than a big elephant.”

Artificial insemination in captive animals is nothing new to the zoo world, especially in endangered species. It’s now the only way giant pandas are bred in captivity, Dr. Hildebrandt said.

Project Frozen Dumbo should also appease animal rights groups who criticize zoos for the shipment of animals, he said.

Considering that many countries are reluctant to send out their animals, he said, this is a ground-breaking partnership.

“We’ve gained a lot of trust from the people in South Africa, and we hope we can continue this in the future.”