Reproduction

 

People working in the zoo field have been very disappointed by the breeding rates of elephants under their care.  This is because captive elephants are having babies at a rate that is only about one fourth of that shown by their wild counterparts.  Not only is this disappointing, it is puzzling.  Nearly all other species respond to the good nutrition and lack of predation in captivity by producing babies at a higher rate than experienced in nature.  But, so far, this has not been true for elephants and we do not know why. 

Whatever the reason, it is now quite evident that with this species it clearly takes more than simply bringing a male and female together.  Even when we optimize temperature, humidity, access to water, environmental enrichment, and the best nutrition that we know how to provide, captive elephants do not reproduce like their wild counterparts. 


photo M. Noonan

And this is a most urgent problem.  Even in the best of circumstances, elephants are very slow reproducers.  When they do get pregnant, they go through a gestation period that is 22 months long, and then the baby nurses from its mother for about two years after that.  This means that female elephants can usually have only one baby every four years.  This is probably the slowest reproductive rate of any animal in nature. 

Sadly, the population of elephants now in captivity is gradually getting older and older.  One by one, most of the female elephants held in zoos around the world are passing out of their reproductive years without having babies.  And this means that the chances of preserving the species through captive breeding programs is getting smaller and smaller. 

We donít know what it is about traditional zoo life that has made simple reproduction so unsuccessful for this species.  However, it is hoped that by better simulating natural conditions, the breeding success that these wonderful creatures experience in the wild will finally also be achieved in captivity.  The thinking is that we should start keeping elephants in much larger groups, and in much larger spaces -- conditions that will allow them to form the equivalent of large matriarchal family groups similar to those seen in wild populations.  This is an idea that is gaining increasing support in the zoo community.  

 

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