Breeding and reproduction are important, natural behaviors and normal aspects of the lifecycle for all animals. At the Oklahoma City Zoo, we support the natural breeding behavior of our Asian elephant herd, as it promotes the physical health of the animals and a quality well-being. This quality of life for elephants is best experienced in a natural social structure involving a mixed herd of several different generations.
At the Zoo, the elephants engage in natural breeding behavior. The health of female elephants is greatly improved when they become pregnant and give birth. Female elephants that never breed are prone to large uterine tumors. These tumors are known to be benign but can get so large that they rupture the uterine artery. Female elephants that do not breed before the age of 25 may never become pregnant due to the reproductive pathology that occurs from cycling continuously.
A successful breeding program is also essential for the conservation of this endangered species whose populations in the wild have declined by more than 50 percent in the last 100 years due to poaching and habitat loss. Breeding is vital to advancing the scientific body of knowledge about reproduction, gestation, birth and calf rearing, while providing a genetic safety net for the survival of Asian elephants, which are increasingly threatened with extinction in the wild.
The herd’s matriarch, 20-year-old Chandra, has been unsuccessful at breeding naturally. Zoo keepers have determined that artificial insemination (AI) is the best option for Chandra’s overall health. Reproductive specialists from Germany assisted in an AI procedure for Chandra as recently as December 2016. Not only will successful AI bolster Chandra’s quality of life, but these techniques continue to help the scientific community learn an incredible amount about elephant reproduction and other aspects of elephant health, such as elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV). For example, the scientific community knows through artificial insemination that EEHV cannot be spread sexually.
With every calf born at the Zoo, experts get closer to understanding how elephants are affected by EEHV and how best to treat them. We must continue to encourage, observe and learn from elephant reproduction and gestation, resulting from natural behavior or through AI as the best option for an elephant’s health and well-being. While elephants in the wild face a growing number of threats, elephants in Zoos provide that critical genetic safeguard should these wild populations continue to decline.
-Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, DVM, DACZM, director of veterinary services