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SCIENCE
 

Baby elephants born in zoos celebrated

Joined by elephants Zuri (left) and her sister Victoria, Willie Theison, the elephant program manager at the Pittsburgh Zoo, talks about Project Frozen Dumbo which aims to help elephants breed in captivity. Photo: Nate Guidry, Post-Gazzette

PITTSBURGH — Over the last 10 years, more than a million of Africa's wild elephants have been killed. In 2004, there were 1.5 million wild African elephants. Today, there are only between 300,000 and 400,000 of the animals left.

The biggest cause of their deaths is ivory poaching. Elephants are being killed for their valuable ivory tusks.

Ivory is very popular in Asia. Strong demand keeps the poaching going, even though it is against the law. An average of 96 wild elephants are poached every day.

Many people are worried that elephants might disappear altogether.

One thing might make that less likely: if healthy African elephants can be bred with captive elephants in zoos.

Two Baby Elephants To Celebrate

Zoos have been trying hard to breed the elephants they have in captivity. They haven't been having too much luck. Getting elephants to mate and give birth is tricky when they are not in the wild.

Now, there is good news. Two baby elephants were born in zoos in Austria and England.

It didn't happen the natural way. The babies were artificially fathered with semen taken from wild South African elephants. Semen is a liquid that males release while mating. It contains sperm, which can make the female pregnant.

For the first time, elephant semen gathered in the wild was frozen and given to zoos. Semen was given to two female zoo elephants. The females later had two healthy baby elephants.

The new project is known as Project Frozen Dumbo. It is named after the Disney character Dumbo the Elephant.

The baby elephants were born at just the right time. Last Tuesday was World Elephant Day. The day is celebrated to draw attention to the problems of the wild elephants.

A Success Story In Pittsburgh

Willie Theison runs the Pittsburgh Zoo's elephant program. He said the news of the births was huge.

For about 30 years, zoos have traded elephants to see if they could get them to mate. Those efforts have largely been unsuccessful. It's just not easy to get zoo elephants to mate out of the wild.

One of the few success stories is a bull elephant named Jackson, who lives at the Pittsburgh Zoo. He is the father of elephants all over the United States.

Unfortunately, this is still a problem. Too many zoo elephants are his children. To be strong and healthy, the zoo elephant population needs more fathers than just one.

If they don't, elephants will be too similar. They will look too much alike and have similar health problems and habits. This makes them worse at survival than if there are a lot of different elephants.

Back To Africa

The best hope now, Theison said, is using semen from wild elephants in Africa. Once collected, it can be sent to zoos all over the world.

Theison said he hopes to pair a 14-year-old female with a possible mate this year. At his zoo, elephants roam over a huge amount of land. Few visitors bother them. The hope is that such conditions will encourage natural breeding.

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