Elephant Breeding

Here are a few facts about breeding of the Asian elephant.

Type: Mammal
Diet: Herbivore
Average life span in the wild: Up to 60 years
Size: Height at the shoulder, 6.6 to 9.8 ft
Weight: 2.25 to 5.5 tons
Group name: Herd
Protection status: Endangered
Size relative to a 6-ft man:
Size comparison of an Asian elephant to a human.

There are few available females capable of reproduction. Only about 35 female Asian elephants have given birth in the last 20 years in North America. We have had four successful births at the Endangered Ark Foundation.

They are troublesome as adults, and when in ‘musth’ can be unruly and hard to handle. The Ark facility has specially reinforced pens to house two bull elephants. We currently have 4 male elephants. Our males, however, do not travel after they have come in ‘musth’.

Baby Asian elephant

A baby Asian elephant.

Gestation Period:
At 22 months it is the longest of any land mammal.

Breeding Process:
The opening of the female reproductive tract is located on the belly (not under the tail like a cow or horse) and male penises extend completely under the opening in the cow and then curve back into the reproductive tract to complete the breeding process. The elephant pen is designed so that there are no 90 degree angles so that the male may not pin the female in the corner, after breeding the female is then returned to her pen. Attempts to artificially inseminate cows have been largely unsuccessful due to the fact that unlike African elephant semen, Asian elephant semen is not fertile when frozen, making the process extremely difficult.

Calves often weigh 250 – 300 pounds when born. The female Asian elephant is often 6,000 to 8,000 pounds and access to monitor the fetus during development is difficult. There have been no successful caesarean sections performed and manipulation of the fetus in the birth canal is almost impossible.

Female elephants that have never calved don’t understand what is happening. First time mothers need extra help and time to adjust to the baby after birth. This situation is complicated by the low numbers of births among Asian elephant populations in North America who have little experience with the birthing process.

Males are tested to see if they are capable of reproduction. Not all male elephants are potential fathers. Many females are incapable of becoming pregnant after their late 20′s if they have not been pregnant previously. It is not uncommon in elephant herds for a mother to hand over a youngster after weaning to an aunt or close female to look after, giving the mother some freedom after a long pregnancy and many months of nurturing her baby.

A female elephant comes into cycle three times per year for approximately 3 days and then is receptive for only 72 hours; blood has to be drawn every week to know exactly when the elephant comes into cycle. Knowing exactly when to put females with the males is not an exact science.

Baby Asian elephant

Genetic Pool:
The International CITIES Treaty, adopted by Congress in 1976, in an effort to maintain and protect endangered populations in ancestral habitats, prohibits the removal of Asian elephants and other endangered species from the wild and their importation into the United States. The stresses on habitat and space, poaching and unregulated hunting have severely limited the ability of native populations to maintain enough genetic diversity to survive. In the year 2000, there were 285 elephants in North America. Of these, only 35 are breeding females and many of these animals will no longer be able to breed due to advancing age. It is one of the unintended consequences of the CITIES Treaty that elephant populations in the West are limited in their ability to become self-sustaining.

Human Assistance:
Our learning curve is steep and we are becoming better at assisting in the process. The knowledge gained in elephant reproduction in the last 15 years is greater than in the previous 150 years. We are continuously working to improve elephant welfare. To this end, DR & Isla Miller started the Endangered Ark Foundation in 1993 to help preserve the endangered Asian elephant species.