Zoo elephant conceived with wild male's frozen sperm

Ultrasound image of Vienna zoo's elephant in womb, 14 Aug 12 Schoenbrunn Zoo's director Dagmar Schratter unveiled the elephant image

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An embryonic African elephant has been photographed in the womb - the result of pioneering artificial insemination by an Austrian zoo.

The Schoenbrunn Zoo in Vienna says it is the first successful use of frozen sperm from a wild African bull elephant to impregnate a female in captivity.

An ultrasound image from Operation Frozen Dumbo shows the foetus with developing trunk and legs.

The mother is nine months into her pregnancy, expected to last 22 months.

Taken in April, the image has only now been revealed. The infant's sex is not yet known.

Tonga, 26, has given birth once before.

The sperm used to impregnate her came from a wild bull elephant in South Africa, which was drugged so that an ejaculation could be induced. An instrument called an electro-ejaculator was used to collect the semen.

Artificial insemination using sperm that is frozen and then thawed has worked in other mammals, including endangered rhinos. But the method has proven particularly tricky with elephants.

Frozen in stages

The zoo is involved in a joint project with Germany's Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, the Beauval Zoo in France and Pittsburgh Zoo in the US.

In a statement on its website, Schoenbrunn Zoo says the aim is to expand the gene pool of African elephants in captivity, to help ensure their survival.

There are reckoned to be about 2,000 African and Indian elephants in zoos worldwide and another 15,000 Indian elephants kept privately - mostly in logging companies and temples.

Schoenbrunn Zoo says 40 elephants have been born from artificial insemination in European zoos since 1998, but the use of frozen sperm from a wild bull is innovative. Two previous attempts with frozen sperm were unsuccessful.

Freezing the sperm enables the team to pick the optimum time to fertilise the female and works out much cheaper, the zoo says.

The Leibniz Institute researcher who developed the freezing technique, Thomas Hildebrandt, said the trick was to freeze the sperm in stages, as mammalian cells are very sensitive to temperature changes.

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