African elephant EEP – decisions for or against breeding?

On 7th January 2015, the German newspaper Thüringer Allgemeine Zeitung commented on the breeding attempts of elephants at Erfurt Zoo in Germany. The zoo opened a completely new facility three months prior to this date in order to start a breeding programme with 11 y.o. African elephant female "Chupa". The young female is already fertile, but according to the German paper, Dr Harald Schwammer,  the coordinator of the European breeding programme for African elephants, suggested "Kibo", a 9 y.o. juvenile male from Vienna´s Zoo Schoenbrunn, as her breeding partner to-be, although "Kibo" is not  fertile yet.

The paper goes on to say that  Erfurt´s Zoo Director, Dr Sabine Merz, suggested an additional adult male in order to enhance "Chupa´s" chances of breeding, but coordinator Dr Schwammer rejected this idea . An older male would only suppress young "Kibo", Dr Schwammer explained to the newspaper. Additionally,  there are not sufficient breeding males available, the coordinator continued. The German article can be viewed here: http://erfurt.thueringer-allgemeine.de/web/lokal/leben/detail/-/specific/Elefant-Kibo-wird-spaetestens-Anfang-April-in-Erfurt-erwartet-395024182

In other words, the coordinator of the African EEP is denying the Erfurt zoo the possibility of acquiring a fertile male and breeding with fertile young "Chupa".  It is well-known that male African elephants frequently reach sexual maturity and are fertile at a later age than Asian males. It is equally known, that the chances for fertile females to breed successfully  decrease with every further nulliparous year.

The coordinator’s excuses are untenable. .There are various counter-examples of African zoo elephants  to his argument that males could suppress each other´s reproductive success. During the 1960ies, Swiss Basle Zoo and German Kronberg Zoo both bred African elephants while housing two males, as well as British Howletts Wild Animal Park during the 1980ies. "Krueger" at Knowsley sired offspring in the presence of juvenile male "Nissim".  At Spanish wildlife park Cabarceno, males "Chiso" and "Cita" sired offspring during the 1990ies and 2000s while the park kept up to 3 adult males at the same time, as did breeding male "Pambo" ten years later in the presence of 10 y.o. "Coco".

In contrary to Dr Schwammer´s presumption, witnessing mating of adults clearly contributes to subsequent reproductive success of juvenile elephants. Vienna Zoo has not kept an adult male since years and thus, young "Kibo" is denied these important experiences of social learning. Apart from that, it does not matter if one of the males is infertile - as long as the other one reproduces successfully. All that matters at present is to breed with the nulliparous female before it’s too late.

The number of fertile African elephant males is indeed  low across Europe. But the main issue is not the absolute number of adult males, but rather an extremely unfavourable distribution of these individuals across zoos. Due to this, fertile males and females are incapable of using their reproductive potential to the full extent.

Across the EEP region, presently 49 male African elephants are kept in zoos and safari parks. Out of these, 13 are proven breeders. But only 6 of these 13 breeding males are kept with at least one fertile female  and have no daughters present.. This is less than half of all breeding males.

 Four breeding institutions desperately need to swap bulls in order to avoid inbreeding with their own daughter: "Tembo"/Berlin, "Tonga"/Hodenhagen, "Tusker"/Wuppertal (all in Germany), "Jums"/Howletts, UK

A further 3  breeding males are kept without fertile females, or with females that do not allow natural mating:"Yossi"/Ramat Gan, IL,  "Tembo"/Colchester, "Krueger"/Port Lympne, both in UK.

In addition to the proven breeders, 6 males are older than 20 years. Out of these, only one individual has a slight chance of reproducing naturally. The other five males are kept without fertile females:"Shaka"/Duisburg, GER,  "Afrique"/Monde Sauvage, BEL, "Carl"/Tallinn, EST, "Ben"/Thoiry, both F,  "Java"/Fasano, I.

Further 13 males are aged between 10 and 20 years. Only three of them have realistic chances to reproduce at the zoos of Toulouse, F, Lisbon, P, and Boras, S; whilst 5 of these 13 males have only limited chances to breed successfully. They should be swapped between zoos.  The last 5 males are kept without fertile females.

In total, there are currently 22 male Africans kept in European zoos that have no or very limited chances of reproducing, but would be more suitable partners for Erfurt Zoo´s female "Chupa" than Vienna Zoo´s "Kibo".

In addition to "Chupa", a further 37 fertile females in 13 zoos are waiting for an adequate breeding partner, plus 6 female calves that will reach breeding age within a few years. Most of these females have been waiting since years.

The European breeding programme for African elephants is at the point of collapse. However, this is not a new situation, but has been known for many years. The reason is by no means a lack of fertile African elephants, nor insurmountable problems to breed these animals. If attempts to establish a self-sustaining population fail, it would be only due to a lack of reasonable, responsible decisions to improve captive breeding across Europe. The current EEP suggestions regarding Erfurt Zoo obviously support this statement. This concerns not only  Erfurt Zoo, but all facilities keeping  African elephants: The genetic variability seems to be a “dead end”, whilst the turn-off towards a coordinated breeding management is almost passed. The EEP’s attitude that the only way out is artificial insemination and import leads down a one way street, It is hard to understand why the zoo community involved  does not unite their efforts to change this, as it is still possible  to do so.

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