On 4 September, after a lengthy gestation period of 645 days, a calf was born to Vienna Zoo’s female African elephant, Tonga. It is the fourth birth of an African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Vienna Zoo, the coordinator of the European studbook for African elephants. The newborn, a female calf, is Tonga’s second offspring, but a very special one this time.
Worldwide, this latest birth is a sensation. It is the first African elephant calf conceived through artificial insemination using frozen semen. The father is a wild bull from the Phinda Gamer Reserve in Africa, who was placed under general anaesthesia for the collection.
Nowadays, artificial insemination as such is routine in African elephant breeding — but only with fresh or chilled semen. But this time the circumstances required an advanced technique, as the father is a wild bull from the Phinda Gamer Reserve in Africa. To transport the sperm of a wild bull from Africa to a European zoo, it had to be frozen.
Unfortunately, elephant sperm is extremely sensitive. Only two cases of artificial insemination using frozen and thawed sperm had resulted in a fertilisation so far, and both gestations ended prematurely. The successful new technique, which started with semen collection of the wild bull under general anaesthesia, was developed by a team from the Berlin Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. And this new technique allowed for successful freezing in Africa, transport and thawing of the bull’s sperm at Vienna Zoo premises.
So, this new method is a great opportunity regarding conservation efforts in captivity (ex-situ). It can help strenghten genetic diversity of existing lineages of captive bred elephants. And hopefully not only elephants but of other endangered species in captivity as well.
In the meantime in Vienna Zoo mother and calf are doing very well. Tonga, the matriarch of the Zoo’s herd is a devoted and caring mother, and also her firstborn Mongu is very caring regarding her little stepsister. Tonga and both her daughters stay separate from the rest of the herd the first few days to ensure some peace and quiet.
This newborn elephant is a positive result of a successful collaboration between the Vienna Zoo and Berlin Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Zooparc de Beauval and Pittsburgh Zoo.
(Source: Vienna Zoo – Tiergarten Schönbrunn press release, 05.09.2013)