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African Elephants Almost Extinct

February 5, 1999

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Keepers at the Indianapolis Zoo are treating two pregnant African elephants _ Kubwa and Ivory _ as if they were their species’ last hope.

They almost could be. Fewer than 500,000 of the creatures remain in the wild, and fewer than 300 are in zoos worldwide, according to the International Species Information System.

Although past efforts to breed the animals in captivity have largely failed _ only four have been born at zoos in the past decade _ zookeepers hope a new artificial insemination technique could reverse the dwindling numbers.

Without a successful breeding program, ``in 20 years we may not have any elephants left in captivity,″ said Debbie Olson, the Indianapolis Zoo’s director of elephant conservation.

Kubwa and Ivory are believed to be the first African elephants impregnated via the groundbreaking procedure, using semen collected from male elephants at zoos in Missouri and Florida. In June, a zoo in Springfield, Mo., announced the first successful artificial insemination of a smaller Asian elephant.

The successful birth of baby elephants next year would be an important step toward keeping African elephants in zoos.

``I don’t think that this is a panacea for the issue,″ said Michael Hutchins, director of conservation for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. ``But it is a tool that will give us more options in our efforts to sustain the captive population.″

And scientists say lessons learned from the insemination process could also help a species threatened by poaching and habitat destruction to survive in the wild where the current population of African elephants is down from more than a million in 1971.

The past breeding efforts were largely doomed, as zoos had few male African elephants available for breeding and researchers knew little about the reproductive cycle of the females, which stand 8 feet tall and weigh between 6,000 and 10,000 pounds.

The idea of artificial insemination first emerged about a decade ago as a way for the 12 bull African elephants in accredited North American zoos to reproduce without the expense and danger of moving the huge animals, Olson said.

The Oregon Zoo in Portland recently spent $14,000 to move a female elephant 130 miles to a zoo in Tacoma, Wash., for breeding, said Mike Keele, coordinator of the elephant breeding program for zoos in North America. That’s twice the cost of each attempt at insemination, he said.

Kubwa and Ivory are the only two of the zoo’s five female African elephants to become pregnant. Two other attempts failed.

Zookeepers got the good news in July, when an ultrasound confirmed the 22-year-old Kubwa was pregnant. Her calf is due in March 2000 after a 22-month gestation.

Ivory, a 17-year-old cow, is due to deliver her calf in September 2000. Keepers were ecstatic when an ultrasound Jan. 29 revealed she was pregnant.

``It shows that the first time wasn’t a fluke,″ said Olson.

She hopes the research will anchor a breeding program to help the African elephant multiply, and the lessons learned _ just in time _ from Kubwa and Ivory can only help further that goal.

``It’s much better off to understand that now, while we have the animals,″ said Keele.

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