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Wildlife officials from 13 Asian nations met in Kuala Lumpur in January 2006 for the first time to co-ordinate efforts to protect elephants. Clarence Fernandez of Reuters wrote: “In the desperate battle to save their elephants, Asian nations are adopting innovative strategies, ranging from microchips implanted under the animals’ skin to African chillies strung on barbed wire to drive them away from standing crops.In Thailand, elephants painting flowers with their trunks or twirling hula-hoops are a common sight, but animal parks’ demand for easily trained calves is threatening a declining population. [Source: Clarence Fernandez, Reuters, March 3, 2006]

In Indonesia, farmers string African chillies on barbed wire fences to discourage elephants from raiding farms, said Tahirudin Hasan, chief of administration at Way Kambas National Park in southern Sumatra, where about 250 elephants live. “The smell makes the elephants not even come close to the farmland,” he said. “As a result, the volume of elephants coming to the farmland has been reduced.” When some of the 70 to 90 elephants living in Sumatra’s Tesso Nillo National Park stray into surrounding farms, authorities use teams of trained elephants to herd them back to their homes, Desmarita Murni, a WWF official based in Jakarta, said.”We have this programme of a flying squad, where trained elephants, along with the trainers, will conduct patrols to bring the wild elephants into the forest where they belong,” Murni said. “We usually do the patrol twice a week, even more often when it’s harvest time.” Elephant corridors shrinking

In India, officials and environmentalists are working to protect elephant corridors. The corridors are 88 buffer zones of forest and agricultural land where the animals can roam freely, and elephants regularly use three-quarters of them, the Wildlife Trust of India says. But the construction of roads, railtracks and housing in and around the corridors fuels conflict between elephants and humans.

India will spend 133 million rupees ($3 million) in fiscal 2006 to protect elephants, but environmentalists worry over the threat from poachers. From 1998 to 2004, the Wildlife Protection Society of India says 275 elephants were poached. Neighbouring Bangladesh has begun a programme to grow more of the food the animals like, so as to steer them away from villages, while teaching villagers to stay out of areas the animals use.

Caring for Orphaned Asian Elephants


Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage between Colombo and Kandy in Sri Lanka is the home to 65 or so elephants, most of whom are orphans that lost their mothers to logging and quarry accidents, poaching and attacks by farmers who lost their crops to elephant. Some of these orphans have been around long enough to have grown into adults.

The elephants have formed herds within the orphanage. Babies are kept with adult elephants in a large forested enclosure. Most of the elephants are trained and sent to zoos or working camps when they reach adulthood. A few however have remained at the orphanage so long they given birth to their own babies. Fourteen calves were born between 1984 and 2000. There have even been some second generation births. "They are never released into he wild," one official told the Washington Post. "It would be every difficult for them to survive in the jungle after living with humans."

The orphanage as founded in 1975 by the Department of Wildlife on a 10-hectare coconut plantation that is now covered with trees and bush and is not too different from the elephants’ natural habitat. One elephant from the orphanage was presented to U.S. President Ronald Reagan by the Sri Lankan president.

The Malaysian Elephant Centre in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia is a similar facility except its goal is to prepare elephant for life in the wild. Set up in 1974, it is located on the edge of a national park and has trained and cared for more than 500 abandoned animals, before returning them to forests. “We will keep the baby elephants here until they are grown up,” Nasharuddin Othman told Reuters. He leads a staff of 24 people looking after the 10 young elephants at the sanctuary. “They cannot survive by themselves. We will train them to survive on their own and then take them back to the forests, he said.

Breeding of Asian Elephants

It is difficult to get elephants to breed in captivity. The birth of an Asian elephant calf at the Portland Zoo in 1962 was the first elephant to be born in North America in 44 years. The first African elephant wasn’t born in the U.S. until 1978. Between 1962 and 2003,only 126 Asian elephant and 38 African elephants have been born in North America.

Asian elephants have never been selectively bred like other animals because their long life span means that no person would live long enough to produced changes in the species make-up.

The infant mortality among captive elephants is 30 percent. Between 1990 and 2003, only six of the 17 African elephants and Only 24 of the 38 Asian elephants born in captivity in North America survived. It is not uncommon for a baby to be born and seem healthy enough and then for some unexplained reason is impaled to death on its 11th day of life.

One of the main reason why elephants are so difficult to breed in captivity is that most zoos will only take females because male elephants go an aggressive state known as “musth”. Another problem is that females go into about estrus every 16 weeks but show no signs of it. Scientist are now trying to determine peak periods of fertility by measuring the females body temperature by getting them to swallow a thermometer the size of a film canister.

To breed elephants in captivity is criminal," animal activist Pat Derby told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm sure in the zoo world, it's a big issue. Not in our world. It's very sad to see calves born in captivity and be doomed to a life of living in what is virtually a prison. No captive facility can really provide everything that an elephant needs.”

See Capturing Elephants

Artificial Insemination in Asian Elephants

Because physically getting two large elephants together poses all sorts of problems, elephant breeders prefer to use artificial means. "Bringing a vial of semen to a cow is a lot easier than bringing a 12,000-pound bull elephant," Michael J. Schmidt, an animal veterinarian and elephant sexuality expert, told the Wall Street Journal.

Artificial insemination with elephants doesn’t work so well. The sperm can not be frozen for artificial insemination the way it can for other animals; the process must be done quick because bull sperm is only good for 24 to 48 hours; it is difficult get the sperm up the female elephant’s eight foot reproductive canal; and when it get there is no guarantee the female is fertile, which is difficult to predict.

Semen is collected from males by using a method called electroejaculation. The males are first sedated and then artificially ejaculated with electricity. Dr. Schmidt told the wall Street Journal that the bull elephants finds the experience "not unpleasant." In Burma, male elephants are trained to copulate with a collection devise.

After the semen is collected it is refrigerated. The semen can only be kept for around a week, which makes the establishment of a sperm bank impractical. The semen is later inserted in the female's long urogenital tract with an expansive human colonoscope or a three-foot-long plastic penis.

Hopes for Artificial Insemination in Asian Elephants

The first successful birth using artificial insemination at an American zoo was not achieved until 1999. The discovery of a hormone marker that predicted when the female was fertile was a big advancement. The process is expensive though, costing over $10,000 per try.

Dr. Schmidt believes that artificial insemination could help save Asian elephants both in the wild and in captivity. Working elephants could be restocked by calves born to artificially inseminated females which would negate the necessity to capture elephants from the wild. The genetic diversity of the working herd would enhanced because the semen would be brought in from a bull not in the herd.

As of 1994, there had been no artificially inseminated births in Myanmar but Dr. Schmidt predicts that in the near future working elephants in Myanmar will have a better record than zoo elephants. The Burmese government is also trying boost natural breeding by making the work camps more "romantic" and providing more food and cutting back on the work load when females are in heat.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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