Is African elephant contraception needed? A major research programme in South Africa showed the value of the Sperm Class Analyzer in evaluating the semen quality of these gentle giants
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). At a recent International conference in Botswana the latest figures from the IUCN reported that the African elephant population had dropped from 550,000 in 2006 to 470,000 in 2013. In East Africa the decline, from 150,000 to about 100,000 was the worst. Elephants are predominantly poached because of their tusks (ivory).
Elephant poaching is often organized by international criminal networks to supply the illegal ivory market, mainly in Asia, with some profits thought to fund regional conflicts and militants and in some cases “syndicates take advantage of political conflicts. However, ivory traffic routes often find their way from Tanzania and Kenya to Vietnam and Philippines, before going on final markets in China and Thailand. There, the ivory is sculpted into jewellery or art pieces that are prized by the wealthy. So the question must be asked: In view of the above aspects is contraception in African elephant really needed?”
The answer is yes! There are dozens of smaller game reserves in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa where there are no poaching or any natural enemies to the African elephant. In these parks it is extremely difficult to control elephant numbers and very quickly populations exceed the plant resources available. There is accordingly a need to contain these numbers without culling of animals and furthermore development of contraception may assist in the future to control numbers in larger parks such as the famous Kruger National Park where there has been a huge population increase over the last 20 years.
A newly available GnRH vaccine was used in several doses over three years on male elephants in different elephant parks and private facilities in South (Fig.1). Elephants were either sedated to collect semen via prostatic massage while the elephant bull is standing (Fig. 2) or in free roaming elephants, electro ejaculation was performed after darting from a helicopter and full recumbence of the animal (Fig. 3) Successful collection was performed in most instances and here the SCA CASA system proved to be invaluable under field conditions as the software can be loaded on a laptop connected to a camera fitted on a microscope with heated stage (Fig. 4). Sperm concentration, sperm motility grades and sperm morphology after SpermBlue staining could all be assessed very rapidly in the fully automated and accordingly objective way (Fig. 5).
The contraceptive protocols applied here was 100% successful. In all bulls the GnRH vaccine decreased the testosterone concentration considerably with a subsequent decline in sperm production. After three to four treatments there was no sperm in ejaculates and if sperm were present they were either immotile and then most sperm only showed sperm heads with separated tails. This contraceptive method was also very useful to contain aggressive behavior in elephant bulls.
This research has just been completed and one publication appeared early this year and the major findings will be presented for publication in the next two months.
In addition, it is possible to bring cutting edge CASA analysis into the wild as if it was the best laboratory conditions using the SCA CASA system of Microptic SL.