Artificial insemination projects to increase elephant population

photo: Bohdan Szcześniak

photo: Bohdan Szcześniak

The elephant population in Thailand has decreased to less than 5,000 as they have been abandoned and left uncared. Concern authorities have made efforts to increase the huge animal’s population through artificial insemination projects.

Phang Sommai is the latest casualty at the Elephant Conservation Centre in northern Lampang province. Her palms were seriously injured and she cannot walk.

Phang Sommai’s injuries highlight the plight of Thai elephants. Some lost their legs after stepping on landmines while dragging timber in the forest. Many others were wounded by cars while roaming Bangkok’s streets as a result of their mahouts’ exploitation.

“Elephants brought to the cities usually become stressed. Sometimes they run wild, hurting people and damaging property. They also suffer from exhaust fumes, as their trunk which is a highly sensitive organ, is at the same level as car exhaust pipes, and they inhale the toxic fumes directly,” said Preecha Puangkam, a veterinarian at Mae Sa Elephant Camp.

Despite attempts to improve the well-being of elephants, about 400 of the pachyderms wander in cities. As a result, there are more untimely deaths than there are babies born, causing an imbalance in the elephant population.

Lack of opportunity for natural mating also contributes to the dwindling population of Thai elephants.

A female elephant normally gives birth to a single calf, with a 23-month gestation period, longer than other animals.

“Mahouts prefer to have elephants working for money than anything else. Elephant camps also want to keep female elephants as they are easily tamed. This means the males and females have less opportunity to meet and mate,” said Sitthidech Mahawangsakul, a veterinarian at Elephant Conservation Centre.

However, researchers have successfully developed an artificial breeding programme to increase the elephant population and reduce weak characteristics caused by inbreeding. It recently welcomed ‘Khun Plai’, said to be the first baby elephant in Asia born to a mother who was artificially inseminated with fresh semen.

“From this success, we are seeing the way to breed Thai elephants and conserve the huge animal,” said Ronnachit Rungsri, a veterinarian at the Elephant Artificial Insemination Project.

Research into frozen elephant semen has also been carried out. The frozen semen can be kept for about 20 years for artificial insemination. Phang Sao was given frozen semen and now she is pregnant, with delivery of her baby expected in September. Researchers say the new born will be the world’s first elephant baby from frozen semen and a new hope for the conservation of Thai elephants.