AS YOU MIGHT WELL IMAGINE, artificially inseminating an elephant is a touchy business. But, says Janine Brown, artificial insemination (AI) is an important tool, because natural reproduction can be difficult for captive elephants. Bulls are dangerous to keep, there aren’t many of them around, and transporting the females to where the bulls are is both stressful and expensive.
Brown, who completed two degrees in animal science (’80 M.S., ’84 Ph.D.) at Washington State University, is the senior endocrinologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. There, in late February 2000, she coordinated the successful artificial insemination (AI) of Shanthi, a 24-year-old Asian elephant. Shanthi is due in December.
Captive animals serve an important function, says Brown. “People often don’t care about things they don’t see.” Also, she says, we need to learn more about elephants so that we can better manage them, both in zoos and in the wild.
“Many females of reproductive age are not exhibiting normal estrous cycles,” says Brown. This means they can’t be bred at all. Brown currently is trying to determine why these animals are not cycling. Preliminary data suggest that there probably are both physiological and behavioral causes.
The reproductive tract of the female elephant is several meters long, making it hard to get the semen to the right place for fertilization. And the semen is not easy to collect from bull elephants that can weigh up to six tons. But recent technological advances have reversed two decades of failure.
German collaborators in Shanthi’s AI developed an endoscopeguided semen catheter, along with ultrasound techniques that allow visualization of the entire reproductive tract. Brown’s laboratory at the Smithsonian developed a hormone assay technique that allowed the team to know exactly when AI would be most successful.
Brown’s lab handles hormone analyses of blood samples for more than three dozen zoos. She consults on reproductive problems in elephants, rhinos, and exotic cats and is reproductive advisor for the group that produces recommendations for breeding captive elephants.