Pittsburgh Zoo helps with world's first frozen-sperm elephant pregnancy


PITTSBURGH - Researchers and scientists at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium are part of a team that has broken new — and fertile — ground in the realm of African elephant conservation.

Genetic material that Pittsburgh Zoo researchers collected from a bull elephant in South Africa is the first frozen specimen to result in conception. The mother-to-be is a 26-year-old African elephant named Tonga at the Vienna Zoo.

As America’s African elephants age, their ability to reproduce drops, said Dr. Barbara Baker, president of the Pittsburgh Zoo.

“If you don’t do anything about breeding elephants in our country, we won’t have any African elephants in our country in 25 to 30 years,” she said.

Officials from the Pittsburgh Zoo, Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt, who works with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, and other scientists collected specimens from 15 African bull elephants in April 2011. Some of the samples Pittsburgh scientists collected went to France and some remain in South Africa.

Hildebrandt used a specimen from France to artificially inseminate the female elephant. Handlers expect her to give birth in late 2013 or early 2014. Elephant gestation lasts 22 months.

Prior to this breakthrough, successful artificial insemination of African elephants had only been done using fresh semen.

“We wanted to see if it was possible to go to Africa, collect from wild bulls, freeze it and take to where the females are,” Baker said. “It’s what modern zoology is all about: consideration of the species both in the zoo and in the wild.”

The successful conception introduces new bloodlines into the elephant population in captivity, something Pittsburgh Zoo elephant manager Willie Theison said is important to the success of future generations of the animal.

“Basically, right now, there’s a limited number of bulls in the country,” he said. “Most of those bulls are not very reproductive.”

The ability to reproduce in captivity is limited to the most proficient breeding bulls — one of which is the Pittsburgh Zoo’s Jackson. Jackson and the other bulls, however, are overrepresented in the American African elephant population, Theison said, something that can hurt the population. The population needs new genes to remain viable.

“That is not really a successful scenario for continuing on down from generation to generation,” he said. “The more bulls we have in the gene pool, the better the success of the program will be.”

Having the semen frozen and at the ready is a big step forward, Baker said.

“This has a tremendous impact,” she said. “We have it readily available. It’s great to not have to depend on whether Jackson is in the mood or not.”

This article was written by Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE.