A ticklish business, artificially inseminating an elephant. With the help of high-tech ultrasound and computer gear, special protective clothing, wheelbarrows and not a little cooperation from Chai, a 26-year-old Asian elephant, Woodland Park Zoo officials hope the complicated process led by two German scientists will result in the pachyderm giving again birth, as she did four years ago.
SEATTLE A ticklish business, artificially inseminating an elephant. With the help of high-tech ultrasound and computer gear, special protective clothing, wheelbarrows and not a little cooperation from Chai, a 26-year-old Asian elephant, Woodland Park Zoo officials hope the complicated process led by two German scientists will result in the pachyderm giving again birth, as she did four years ago.
Chai got pregnant by natural means last time around, but it wasn't all candy and flowers. She had to endure the stress of getting shipped off to a zoo in Missouri, where some of her fellow elephants showed her hostility. She came home with scars and a few chunks missing from her ears.
There was even less romance this time, but at least she got to stay home at the zoo's spacious elephant compound and house. Nearby was her calf, Hansa, who was born Nov. 3, 2000, becoming the first elephant ever delivered at the 100-year-old Seattle zoo.
Setting the stage was no easy task.
Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt, one of two world-renowned German scientists called in to help, wore a bicycle helmet, ultrasound imaging goggles and covered himself in plastic protective gear.
Beneath Hildebrandt, his colleague, Dr. Frank Goeritz, sat on a stool in front of a bank of computer screens, electronic equipment and a jumble of computer and power cords.
With several zoo keepers helping, Hildebrandt inserted an ultrasound probe into the elephant's rectum while Goeritz fed a light-emitting tube into a larger catheter that had been inserted into Chai's "vestibule."
The vestibule is just one feature of an elephant's 10-foot-long reproductive tract that makes artificial insemination difficult. Inside it is a dime-sized vaginal opening, two false openings on either side, and the bladder's much larger opening.
After hours of preparation, examination and a messy enema involving wheelbarrows of dung to make for a clearer ultrasound image, Hildebrandt and Goeritz succeeded in inseminating Chai Tuesday night.
"It went very well," Hildebrandt told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "We'll see."
Dr. Nancy Hawkes, general curator at the Seattle zoo, said it will be another 15-16 weeks before an ultrasound can confirm if Chai is pregnant. If she is, there will be another 22 months of gestation, with a due date in December 2006 or January 2007.
Anatomy is just one of the hurdles to elephant reproduction.
For starters, it isn't easy to pin down exactly when they're ovulating -- a process Chai goes through only three times a year.
There are no male elephants at the Seattle zoo. And because elephant semen can't be frozen, fresh semen for Chai had to be collected and flown in from a zoo elephant in Tulsa, Okla., and a donor in Los Angeles, a bull that works part-time in the film industry.
Some experts believe successful reproduction of the captive elephant population may be critical to the species' long-term survival. The Asian elephant is as an endangered species, largely because of habitat destruction.
"Reproduction technology is increasingly important for saving species," Hildebrandt said. He and his colleagues at the Berlin Institute for Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research apply their skills to many animals, such as the critically endangered Northern White Rhino.
Hildebrandt and Goeritz, nicknamed the "Berlin Boys" in some circles, may hold the most promise for turning things around.
They were responsible for 12 of the 17 successful elephant pregnancies achieved using artificial insemination in the past decade, and the others also used their approach, the P-I reported.
Hildebrandt and his colleagues perfected the ultrasound technique of guiding the insemination process by performing autopsies on elephants that had been culled from herds in South Africa because of overpopulation in dwindling habitats.
The German scientists also use the ultrasound for visualizing ovaries and other features of the elephant reproductive tract to make the timed rendezvous of elephant egg and sperm as close to perfect as possible.
Source: Associated Press