The Importance of Breeding Elephants

The Saint Louis Zoo -- like all responsible, accredited zoos -- takes very seriously its role as a steward of a portion of the planet’s natural heritage. As such, we have an obligation to manage our Asian elephant population in a humane and scientific manner to help ensure the species’ survival.

Zoos play an important role in the conservation and study of elephants, as well as many other endangered species. Many scientists believe the Asian elephant could become extinct in the wild by the middle of the next century, if current habitat destruction trends continue. Given the uncertain future for elephants in the wild, captive management programs are becoming increasingly important to the survival of the species. These programs can create secure reservoirs of animals and their gene pools to re-establish wild populations that have become extinct. They can also reinforce remnant wild populations debilitated by genetic and demographic problems.

In addition, zoos also have a unique opportunity to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge about elephants, knowledge that is nearly impossible to gain from elephants in the wild. Because of our ready access to captive animals, and the trusting relationships built between elephants and their keepers, zoos have amassed valuable data on elephant physiology and diseases, nutritional requirements, behavior (including memory), genetics and reproduction. In addition, the captive breeding of both Asian and African elephants has been more successful in recent years because of increased efforts in natural reproduction and technical advances in assisted reproduction.

We are proud that Zoo observations and studies of captive elephants are adding to the growing body of zoological data on elephants, and are being used to contribute to global conservation efforts on behalf of the species as a whole.

Elephant Dating Games

So how do you go about breeding endangered species? When it comes to elephants, it's no simple matter. Not only does a Zoo need adequate facilities and staff, but it also needs to know which elephant to breed with which. This is important in preventing inbreeding and loss of genetic variability in the species.

That’s why the Saint Louis Zoo participates in Species Survival Plans (SSPs) for elephants and other endangered animals. Species survival plans are cooperative conservation programs developed by North American zoos and aquariums to manage the breeding of captive animal populations. The goal is to maintain healthy, self-sustaining populations that are genetically diverse and demographically stable. SSPs also include research, public education, reintroduction programs and field projects.

The SSP for Asian elephants helped us determine which female elephants in North American zoos would be potential candidates to breed with our bull, Raja. That’s what led to our Zoo acquiring Sri from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and Ellie and Rani from the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida.

Once we humans arranged these elephant matches, the animals themselves took over their own "dating games." Judging from the new additions to our elephant herd, the games were a success!