Is artificial insemination an answer for Thai elephants?
Apologies for my staccato, machine gun, blogging style just recently - an empty week and fifteen in one day - my weather rants aside, and for those of you interested we've just had our first rains of the wet over the last two or three days so I'm sitting in my usual chair in the crystal clear air in the cool of a damp dawn as the first rays of the sun start to warm the atmosphere.
My lawyers warn me to state at this point that it may dry up over the next week and the haze may come back. I maintain, however, that the first dragon is slain and it smells deliciously of the wet season.
I hope, today, to clear all the little bits and pieces that are sitting on my "mmmm, they might be interested in that" file.
Firstly, from early March we have news of Thailand, indeed South East Asia's, first calf born through artificial insemination - conceived and born in the T.E.C.C. and funded by several long standing local charities and blessed by the best Universities in the land but the first question on everyone's lips might be, simply, why?
If elephants are breeding well in camps (ironically they seem to be doing well in the places that are not scientifically trying) and there are so many baby elephants in Thailand that they need to take to the streets in order to make enough money to survive, why are we looking at creating more?
Well, since the press seemed to largely miss it, I'll tell you why I think it makes sense and why I think this is a very far sighted project, its instigators going through the properly methodical steps and playing the long game - something rare in any circles nowadays.
Step 1: Prove that A.I. can a healthy baby elephant outside zoo conditions using Asian field methods (borrowed and modified from U.S. and European zoos). STEP 1 COMPLETED - congratulations all round.
Step 2: Attempt a world first, to produce a healthy baby elephant using semen that has been frozen - apparently (see Shana Alexander's "The Astonishing Elephant") elephant sperm loses potency when frozen outright so the correct freezing medium must be found for it to be done. To the best of my knowledge this has yet to be done.
Bearing in mind that once you have performed the A.I. and unless you have the most up to date ultrasound determining pregnancy is a little bit hit-and-miss and requires regular hormone level checking even to make an educated guess. Having determined pregnancy it is only when, after 18 - 22 months, a healthy baby is born that you can claim true success - this is likely to be a very long step but, eventually and on success, it leads to the holy grail of...
Step 3: A frozen sperm bank for Thai (Asian?) elephants which means that, should the unthinkable happen, and the population collapse in the wild or domesticity the best genetic diversity will be stored for safe keeping until habitat can be restored - I believe similar projects have been described as an Ark.
Whilst we on the ground continue to search for an immediate solution to the elephants' worries we should be proud that such a far seeing project is happening in Thailand and offer support to those with the courage to look that far into the future and hope.
PS. It's also OK to look at the photos and say aaaaaahhhh!
It's a boy and just 100 kilos
The birth - the first of its kind in Asia - is an important step for Thailand in its attempt to save its iconic animals from an alarming decline.
Born at 9.30pm on March 7, the not-yet-named male baby elephant weighed 100 kilograms, was 90 centimetres tall, 120 centimetres long (from its forehead to the tail root), and about 128 centimetres around its chest.
It was healthy and could walk immediately, said Lampang Elephant Hospital head veterinarian Sitthidech Mahasawangkul.
"This is the first time that artificial insemination has been successfully carried out in Thailand and in Asia," Sitthidech said. "We hope that this will help increase the elephant population in Thailand, which has been declining for the past several decades."
It was the second baby for 24-year-old Phang Khod - the first female elephant in the entire region to have been successfully impregnated by the technology since early June 2005.
The semen was from a healthy 15-year-old Plai Jampati - who was born in Israel and later moved to Thailand years ago.
Sitthidech said officials separated the baby from Phang Khod - as she attacked her first baby five years ago - and gave the mother medicine to calm her.
Later on the mother and baby were put together, but the baby was not yet familiar enough with Phang Khod to breastfeed. After circling around its mother for hours, the baby finally started to suckle, bringing relief to the attending veterinarians.
The breastfeeding could last for three years. Phang Khod and the baby would continue to stay together when returned to the Elephant Conservation Centre.
The insemination was a joint effort by the National Elephant Institute (NEI), the Elephant Hospital, Kasetsart University, Chiang Mai University and related agencies. Although there were several previous successful Asian elephant inseminations in the US and Europe, this was the first in Asia, said Sitthidech.
He said the Thai elephant population decline was a result of food and water shortages. Combined with a low birth rate, this resulted in a decreasing amount of productive male elephants in captivity. Moreover, as most breeding beasts worked all year round they could not naturally reproduce in mating periods.
Sitthidech said 20 vets and researchers had introduced fresh semen into Phang Khod on June 10, 2005, using a four-foot-long rubber tube. Phang Khod was found to be pregnant three months later.
Sitthidech also spoke of another research on elephants' frozen semen by the NEI and Kasetsart University, which had been carried out since 2000.
The project is the world's first to succeed in producing frozen semen using biological technology to freeze elephant semen for up to 20-30 years for artificial inseminations, he said. Currently, it had frozen "good-breed" semen - which normally loses 20-30 per cent in strength - in the elephant sperm bank, he said, adding they would do more artificial inseminations in the near future.
There were 2,300 captive elephants and about 2,000 wild elephants in Thailand, according to an NEI report, while the Elephant Conservation Centre currently has 88 elephants.
Anan Paengnoy, The Nation