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Scientist seeks deposits for elephant sperm bank

Ben Knight · 16 Mar 2012, 07:34

Published: 16 Mar 2012 07:34 GMT+01:00

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Zoos across the world are facing a growing crisis – the dwindling gene pool of their elephants. In fact, one rather drained male called Jackson has sired many of the captive calves born in the United States in the last ten years.

That’s why, every couple of years, Thomas Hildebrandt of Berlin’s Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) takes to the South African skies in a helicopter over the savannah, searching for bulls. Once a potentially fertile specimen has been identified, the helicopter swoops down and Hildebrandt fires a narcotic dart to stun the animal.

There then follows a simple five-minute procedure, known as electro-ejaculation. “It’s an established medical method for paraplegic men which has been used for 25 or 30 years, though it’s rarely performed on wild animals,” Hildebrandt told The Local.

“A probe is inserted about three or four centimetres into the lower intestine, near the gonadal nerve centre,” he explained. “This is then stimulated with a 5 to 15 volt charge that causes a contraction of the entire reproductive tract, which leads to the sperm being forced out.”

The biggest challenge in this somewhat eye-watering procedure is the powerful anaesthetic in the dart. This happens to trigger a muscle contraction that causes the elephant’s 1.5 metre long penis to retract into its cavity. This, according to the elephant insemination experts, takes some teasing out.

“The problem is, in order to extract the sperm hygienically, we have to get the tip out and clean it,” explains Hildebrandt.

Once this is achieved and the sperm is safely collected, it is immediately frozen, and later thawed out and tested for various elephant diseases.

This is all part of Project Frozen Dumbo, a scientific scheme started two years ago to collect sperm for special banks. These are located at the Beauval Zoo near St. Aignan in central France, and the International Conservation Centre in Pittsburgh Zoo in the US.

There's only one snag – no elephant has yet been successfully inseminated with sperm that has previously been frozen. "But we’re close to it, we're very, very optimistic," said Hildebrandt.

"There are many problems. Sperm are very fragile cells. Because they move, the entire propulsion system in the cells has to be preserved during the thawing out process, and can't be damaged by ice crystals."

Rhinos, on the other hand, have already been successfully inseminated with semen from a bank – it seems the key is a thicker sperm skin. "The configuration of the membranes is more robust in rhino sperm," he explained.

Story continues below…

Currently it costs roughly €100,000 to obtain, transport and quarantine three litres of elephant sperm, theoretically enough to impregnate 65 elephant cows. One ejaculation is roughly 100 ml, exactly enough to fill a standard champagne glass, so a number of bulls have to be treated.

This potentially makes the Project Frozen Dumbo much less expensive or traumatic for the animals than to transport them from zoo to zoo to mate. But first it has to work, Hildebrandt admitted.

"The most important thing in this project is success," he said. "If we can't show that this investment and all this work results in babies, then no-one will support the research."

Hildebrandt is hoping to expand the scheme to other species similarly threatened by limited captive gene pools. The next on his list is the striped bongo antelope.

Ben Knight (ben.knight@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

09:54 March 16, 2012 by oneforall
If not for the in-breeding problems, this article, in parts, is extremely hilarious.

Also, why 'Project Frozen Dumbo', and not 'Project Frozen Jumbo'?
10:20 March 16, 2012 by Englishted
Are they at least good enough to give them a smoke after ?.


Because they want ones with big ears that can fly why else ?.


11:12 March 16, 2012 by joysonabraham
3 litters o sperm, man. Thats a huge amount. I think the price is ok at the present rate :)
11:59 March 16, 2012 by bszasz
Let me get this straight - for reasons no one knows, significantly more male than female calves are born in captivity. Zoos have a Species Survival Plan that traces bloodlines. So how did one bull manage to sire so many calves? Does he have wings? Maybe he really is a Dumbo, though I suspect these very knowledgeable zoo people had a part in it. Maybe they should consult with livestock breeders, or better yet, stop keeping these glorious animals in concrete cells.
19:35 March 16, 2012 by oneforall

3 litres sounds like hard work. But for €100,000, I will take the challenge. Keep the chips and cookies ready.
20:32 March 16, 2012 by yuri_nahl
I predicted this would happen. More or less. I swear to God!
06:08 March 17, 2012 by ErnestPayne
I have somewhat less than no desire to get that "up close and personal" with a male elephant. If you can find people willing to do that give them a medal.
00:36 March 29, 2012 by Supermog
It sounds like hard work, but someone has to do it! I'm glad nobody tried to do it to me though.
04:42 April 7, 2012 by BBlacky
I helped my uncle Jack off the elephant.

You know him, right? Dr. Jack Mehoff. Fine man. Excellent vet, if a bit peculiar. Gives you a firm handshake.
05:42 April 21, 2012 by yuri_nahl
@ BBlacky. I don't trust your uncle Dr. Jack Mehoff. He has a firm handclasp, but his palms are always damp. I know ex-World Bank president-love machine Paul Wolfowitz had a scheme to utilize an artificial elephant to harvest sperm. After seeing a raging bull elephant destroying anything near it, he cleverly decided to hire local talent to guide the thrashing elephant penis into a 55 gallon drum. (Standing inside the simulated female elephant) (manufactured by the outfit that created the fake great white shark for the movie "Jaws") He was seen heading for the airport after the fellows he hired to handle the penis realized their life expectancy was 3 seconds past the time the love sick fool of an elephant smelled their male scent and also found out he had not paid their medical insurance premium.
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