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Veterinarians conducted two artificial insemination procedures this week on Shanthi, one of the Asian elephants at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Zoo staff hope that she will become pregnant, an important milestone in the Zoo's commitment to Asian elephant conservation.
The artificial insemination was done by Suzan Murray, the National Zoo's chief veterinarian, and Ray Ball, associate veterinarian at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Fla. The procedures were done Jan. 17 and 18. Scientists will now monitor the level of the hormone progesterone in Shanthi's blood. If concentrations remain elevated past 10 weeks after insemination, it most likely means she is pregnant, something that would be confirmed by an ultrasound. An Asian elephant's gestation period ranges from 20 to 22 months.
Artificially inseminating an elephant is a challenging and difficult medical procedure, and in order for it to be successful, several things have to take place. First, the elephant must have a healthy reproductive tract. Also, the semen used for the procedure must be of good quality and must be placed correctly in the cervix and/or uterus. Finally, the artificial insemination must be timed properly: elephants have two surges of luteinizing hormone in about a three-week period. Using blood samples, scientists are able to detect when the first surge, which does not induce ovulation, occurs. The second LH surge, which does induce ovulation, follows about 20 days later, and that is when the artificial insemination is done. For this week's procedures, semen was used from a bull elephant at the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum in Oklahoma.
Shanthi, who is approximately 32 years old, gave birth to Kandula in 2001. He was the fifth elephant in the world conceived by artificial insemination. Through past artificial insemination procedures done with Shanthi, National Zoo scientists collected information that led to a greater understanding of elephant reproduction. For example, National Zoo reproductive physiologist Janine Brown discovered that elephants have a double LH surge, which turned out to be vital for the proper timing of the artificial insemination.
An elephant birth would help bolster the decreasing population of Asian elephants in North America, and it would be an important step toward creating a multi-generational herd at the National Zoo. The Zoo is currently expanding its elephant exhibit to accommodate such a social grouping. "Elephant Trails" will feature additional space and a walking trail for the elephants, in addition to a large indoor habitat with soft flooring.
National Zoo scientists have been studying Asian elephants in the wild for nearly 40 years, in an effort to help prevent them from becoming extinct. Fewer than 30,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. There also are 15,000 domesticated elephants found in Asian range countries, many of which live in substandard conditions in logging camps, temples, tourist resorts and other facilities.
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Note to editors: Digital photos of Shanthi are available from the National Zoo's public affairs office.