Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Elephant captive breeding history and Hall of fame

The elephants were never domesticated, and although captive breeding for sure occured, before and during medevial time, this was ocassionally, by random matings, and probably never leading to a second generation.
The reason, especially in Asia, was simple: it was much easier to catch wild elephants in the forest, and tame and train them, than trying to breed them. Maybe Asian mahouts during medevial times, already then found out, that captive born elephants becomes much more dangerous and aggressive, than wild caught elephants, a fact that obviously still until today is unknown by most laymen, and also many people within the Zoological community. Another reason was that the elephants were used for war or work, why it was more effective to catch semiadult, or adult elephants. Some Indian states actually had written laws, prohibiting capture of elephants younger than 20 years. Investing time, food, and recources in elephant babies was uncommon.
Therefore, Asia had no traditions of captive breeding, and the first recorded babies born in Asia is from the 18 century. The northern african elephant, Loxodonta pharaoensis, (now extinct) which was captured and used for roman time wars by Carthago and Rome, was probably not bred in any remarkable numbers, although some records indicate elephant births on the Compagna outside Rome City.

In the book Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, the author Ralph Helfer tells about Modoc the elephant born in Germany in 1900 to Mr. Joseph and Katrina Guntertine, which is all false, its no true story at all, no such elephant were born at that time in Germany, no german elephant keeper ever stranded with his elephant in India, and according to elephant and circus historian William "Buckles" Woodcock, Helfer mixed up three different wildborn Modocs which all were kept at Ringling Brotters and Barnum and Baileys Circus in USA:
With this falsery, Ralph Helfer even managed to bring this fictional elephant Modoc, being merged from three different Modocs, into the Guiness books of records, as the oldest elephant recorded, from which I believe, it is now removed. If not, it should be.

The first documented 10 captive born elephants

The first documented captive bred elephants in the western hemisphere were indeed born on circuses.In those times very few zoos kept bulls, but the circuses did, with lethal consequences for the elephant trainers.

1. The very first The first documented birth of a captive asian elephant outside Asia, was the male Joe born 31st May 1875 at Howes Great London Circus (he died shortly afterwords)

Babe and Columbia 1880 at the Cooper & Bailey winter quarters in Philadelphia.
2. The second was the female Columbia born 3rd October 1880 on Cooper & Bailey Circus who was 27 seven years on her death 1907. Although her mother, Hebe, commonly known about the show as Babe, was one of the best-natured elephants I ever knew, the daughter grew meaner and meaner as she got older, until in 1905 or 1906 she had to be killed. Mr. Bates, who was assistant superintendent of elephants for a long period of years, told me she inherited her vicious disposition from her sire.
W. Henry Sheak, The Elephant in Captivity, Natural History, September-October 1922

The father of the those first two babies, Mandarin, was killed and sent to the bottom of New York Harbour in 1902, on Barnum and Baileys retour to the U.S. from the european tour.

3. The third baby was Bridgeport born 1882 at Barnum and Bailey Circus, She was burned up in the fire in 1886 that destroyed much of the splendid menagerie of Barnum and Bailey.The father, Chieftain, was killed in 1888 by strangulation, he was choked to death by two bull elephants Basil and Bismarck

4. Ringling Bros Circus had a baby born named Ned (Nick)  in 1900. His mother Alice did not take care of her son, and was Ned was bottlefed, but with less results, he died three months old. He was the first birth on the Ringling Brothers Circus.

5. The first elephant born in a Zoo, was a stillborn calf born 1902 in London Zoo, but it was bred on Circus Sanger.

6. The same year, 1902, an elephant was born on Ringling brothers Circus, which was killed by the mother.

Phua Victoria Portena with her mother Nayan, Buenos Aires Zoo 1905
7. In Buenos Aires Zoo, Argentina, the worlds first Zoo-bred surviving elephant was born 23 february 1905, and got the name Phua Victoria Portena. Unfortunately she died after three years. Her father Sanyan was bought from Firma Hagenbeck, and killed at least one keeper.

8 and 9. In 1906 the two elephant babies Mädi born in Vienna Zoo. and  Editha born in Berlin (Conceived between February and April 1905 in Hagenbecks Tierpark, Hamburg.) was born, Mädi died in 1944, officially shot because of enteritis while the bombs fell in Vienna, and Editha, who was rejected by her mother died only some weeks later after the birth in anorexia, the hand rearing was not succesful.

This photo shows Ellen with Kaspar,the day after he was born.
10. Denmark had three elephant births in a row, the first was the bull Kaspar born in Copenhagen Zoo 1907.

Kaspar was named after Mr Kaspar Rostrup, and was rented some years, during the summers, to a circus  owned by by Wrestler Magnus Bech-Olsen (World champion in 1892 and held this title until 1903).

Kaspar was transfered in 1912 to Hannover Zoom who paid 5.000 german Marks for Kaspar. Hannover sold in 1922 him to Jardin d´Acclimatation in France. In spring 1927 he becaome more and more aggressive, due to musth condition, and it was decided to kill him, after he tusked a zookeeper. Some sources state he was poisoned, other strangulated. At death he reached 2.70 meters at shoulders, and had a weight of 4000 kgs.

 11. Vienna Zoo had a stillborn baby in 1910.

12 Vienna Zoo had the next birth with Greti, who were born in 1911, and died in 1916, five years old.

Then 100 years went by, with various results. Many elephants were killed by their mothers, and there was also some stillbirths. And quite a few of the captive born elephants became much more aggressive during their teenager age, than the wild caught elephants, resulting in keeper accidents and euthanising of the elephants. The first official example is Komali, born 1984 in Zürich Zoo. Many laymen beleive that captive born elephants become more docile in captivity, but this is not the case, by apr. 10 years of age, or even earlier, especially young bulls, they create much more problem than wild-caught elephants.

Another sensational knowledge through the captive breeding was that young females, dominated by their fathers could give off spring in very young ages. Some females, bred by their fathers by the age of six, gave birth to babies by eight years of age, without undergoing major physical problems. This has, during the last ten years,  resulted in an intensive transfer of breeding bulls by animal transport companies, in order to avoid inbreeding.

Elephant captive breeding in Europe

The breeding of elephants in Europe is supervised by the EEP, The European Endangered Species Programme. There are presently about 500 Asian, and less than 300 African, captive elephants in Europe. The majority are cows, but Apr. 50 Asian (10 breeders) and 40 (2breeders) African are bulls. 16 Asians, and 3 Africans, of these were born in Europe, the rest wereimported from origin countries.
Between 1902-1992; 121 Asian, and (1943-1992) 11 African births are registered.
The first two generation born elephant in europe was Charkowtschanka born 1958 at Kharkiv Zoo. Rotterdam Zoological Gardens in Holland had three unique elephants babies: Both their parents were born in Zoos,(Copenhagen and Hanover) so those three are true second Zoo generation. Bernhardine (Bernhardini) was the first 2nd generation zoo elephant elephant in the world, whos both parents were born in zoos. Rotterdam Zoo broke a record in 1997-1998, having bred four elephants in four months!

Read more on (incomplete) EEP elephant studbook in the elephant database

Elephant captive breeding in America

The breeding of American elephants is supervised by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association Species survival plan including the African , and the Asian elephant.

The first births was in 1880 and 1882, but ut took long time until next births. From 1962 until 1994, 85 births were recorded, with a birth almost every second year. In 1994 about 50 of these were still living.
Second Zoo generation offspring has been born in the most productive Zoo; Portland in Oregon, and in Calgary, and the first third-generation elephant to be born in the United States was Sam (Samudra) at Portland Zoo. Other productive locations are African Lion Safari in Canada, and Ringling Bros Barnum and Baileys breeding farm.

Read more on (incomplete) SSP elephant studbook in the elephant database

Elephant captive breeding in Australasia

The first elephants in Australasia was two imports to Sydney and Melbourne Zoo from Calcutta Zoo in 1883.

The breeding of elephants in Australasian Region is supervised by the Australasian Species Management Program (ASMP) and care and management by Guidelines for Management of Elephants in Australasian Zoos. Both are within the (ARAZPA). The import of elephants from Thailand in 2006 has so far resulted in 3 succesful births of Asian elephants, the first one was the male elephant Luk Chai born 2009, the second the female elephant Mali, born 2010, and the third was the male elephant Pathi Harn, born 2010.

Read more on (incomplete) ASPM elephant studbook in the elephant database

Most succesful captive elephant breeders worldvide

It should take almost hundred years before the natural captive elephant breeding was becoming really successful, but although breeding had a slow beginning, it has been succesful since the 1970´s with following 20 record holders:  (I may have forgotten some important breeding facility, please correct me, if so)
  1. Pinnawela elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka had officially 67 births since 1984.  
  2. Ayutthaya royal kraal, in Thailand had so far 57 (they state 55!) recorded births since year 2000.
  3. Ramat Gan Zoo in Israel had 38 births between 1973 and 2006.
  4. Portland Zoo (Metro Washington Park Zoo) in U.S.A. had 27 births between 1962 and 2008.
  5. Emmen Zoo in Netherlands had 26 babies between 1992 and 2011.
  6. Hannover Zoo in Germany had 26 babies between 1942 and 2012. 
  7. In my records, Maesa elephant camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand, had 22 recorded babies since 1997, but I think the correct number should be much higher, I visited this place in 1989, and they had, for sure breeding already then. They may eventually be nr 1 or 2 as breeder.
  8. Roman Schmitt had 20 births between 1983 and 1995  in Busch Gardens U.S.A.
  9. San Diego Wild Animal Park in U.S.A. had 20 babies between 1981 and 2011.
  10. Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey Center For Elephant Conservation in U.S.A. had 18 births between 1996 (they took over Roman Schmitts breeding project) and 2010. 
  11. Howletts Wild Animal Park in United Kingdom had 18 births between  1982 and 2011.
  12. Tiergarten Berlin-Friedrichsfelde in Germany had 16 births between 1998 and 2010.
  13. Houston Zoo in U.S.A. had 16 births between 1983 and 2010.
  14. Rotterdam Zoo (Diergaarde Blijdorp) in Netherlands had 15 births between 1984 and 2010.
  15. Carl Hagenbecks Tierpark in Hamburg, Germany had 15 births between 1929 and 2009.
  16. African Lion Safari in Canada had 14 births since 1991.
  17. Cabarceno Zoo Obregon (Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabarceno) in Spain had 14 births since 1995.
  18. Copenhagen Zoo (Zoologisk Have) in Denmark who had 14 births between 1907 and 2006.
  19. Paris Zoo in Bois Vincennes,  France (not operating anymore) had 11 births between 1945 and 1998.
  20. Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, U.S.A. had 10 babies born between 1985 and 2006, sharing their level with Zürich Zoo in Switzerland, who also had 10 babies in similair time span, between 1984 and 2005..
Artificial insemination

Photo © Daryl Hoffman, Houston.
Only in the last decades U.S. and german scientists managed to breed elephants by artificial insemination (AI) So far, 36 elephants has been born by AI since 1999, 25 males, and 10 females. 17 bulls were used for AI. With african elephants in U.S. a mix of semen with different bulls has been used, and the father has later been prooved through DNA testing. The next step is now to select the semen, in order to avoid the birth of too many bulls in captivity, since AI seem to produce many bulls.

AI is mostly used as an option with places that doesnt have a (breeding) bull present, and when its important that the females start to breed. A female that didnt had a baby before 20-25 years of age, will often undergo pathological development in the ovaries, such as myomas, and will become sterile.

In order to save those females for future breeding, its sometimes essential to breed them through insemination.


Apart from stillbirths, and elephant babies being killed by their mothers, a virus has become a major threat towards baby elephants. The EEHV - Elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus has so far killed over 45 elephant babies, and the virus is now feared by all western elephant breeding institutions. For some time, it was thought that the herpes virus from african elephants were lethal for Asian elephants, but lately, with more collected data, it seems like its more complicated than that. The virus has also been found on wild Asian elephants, who had no physical contact with captive Asian or African elephants. Some institutions prepare for the worst, and store medicine before birth, and start to medicate their new born elephant calfs when theres only small suspicion of herpes.

But in general, elephant captive breeding is not a large problem  anymore, the challenge is more connected to enough space to keep breeding groups, and to house bulls in a safe and not too small environment.

Some zoos, like Heidelberg in Germany, has focused on management of young bulls, which they keep for future breeding projects. This is almost similair to wild conditions, where semiadult bulls stay together in bachelor groups. One of the davantages is that this system gives them more stimulation than if they would kept single in a smaller enclosure in a zoo. Still, probably many single adult bulls could theorethically be kept together with the breeding groups, like fomer examples from Hannover, Paris and Howletts did for many years.

Breeding situation 2012

The statistical section of the elephant database shows a total of 1262 captive-born from both species since 1875, 652 cow elephants with offspring, and 245 bull elephants with offspring. Presently,  31 female elephant cows (1%) out of 2443 total living cows are pregnant, 653 females (27%) had babies, while 1759 (72%) are virgins who never had a calf. 

Leading breeding bulls are  African Yossi from Ramat Gan and Asian Vance (Matt) who both sired 23 babies each. Ramat Gan also win the price for the highest inbreeding of elephants, othervise the inbreeding so far does not look so serious.

I hope the import restrictions to western countries will soon be removed. Theres really no serious threat towards most of the present African and Asian elephant populations, and I see no reason why the elephant species shall not be treated just like any other mammal species. Zoos in America and Europe now breed elephants succesfully, but now and then theres a need for new blood, and younger females for zoos who have some gentle and nice females, which are too old to breed.

Some, later critizised animal dealers/brookers, actually contributed a lot to breeding programmes. While single zoos today have problems of importing only a few animals for breeding, dealers like Franz van den Brink in Netherlands, (and Firma Ruhe, Firma Hagenbeck and Georges Munro before him) actually supplied europe with their larger parts of present breeding materials, through his +40 elephants import from Burma 1988-1990. Another example is the "crazy" millionaire and inventor of the  Nautilus exercise machines, Mr Arthur Jones, who imported some 80 baby elephants from Zimbabwe in 1984, which today are the dominant breeding african elephants in North America.

Today theres unwritten rule that Zoos shall not buy animals from animal dealers, but history shows that companies like Hagenbecks and Firma Ruhe collected important knowledge and experience as experts in this particualir field, which each single zoo simply can not reach. For sure, a lot of unnessecary problems could be avoided if importers were aloud to operate, and build up their special competence in that sector.

One can also hope that politicians and zoo directors get tired to listen to the never ending flow of critizism from animal right activists, whos hidden agenda is that they are just against anything, and their knowledge is extremely low, all they do is repeating the same message they read on their favouriye forums, but it has to be stated, that seldom, or never, do they posses any sort of relevant personal knowldge or experience in regard to elephant training, management, pathology or breeding. They just scream very high, and unite in terror like organisations, signing thousands of petitiions, which may upset a few pubertal, unexperienced, politicians.

But in no democrazy, shall a majority of people have to surrender to a minority, only because they are more aggressive, manipulating or terrorizing, than the rest of the population. 

I know, since the elephant keepers meeting in Howlets back in 1999, that some people within the EEP elephant tag does not believe in existence of subspecies within the Elephas maximus, but for sure, those people are not DNA specialists, and now, after 100 years of various attempts of elephant breeding, when every single elephant baby was considered a success, regardless if it was a crossing of Borneo and Sri Lankan subspecies, it may now be time, to start to consider breeding true lines of different local varieties, and today, theres really no need for mixed elephant subspecies breeding anymore.

Urgent need

Finally, there may be time to think about exporting elephants back to their origin countries, as Zoos has already done with other mammals pecies, like the Przewalski's horse, the eruopean Bison, and the Arabian Oryx.

One example may be Vietnam, which today has less than 52 wild elephants and about 82 captive elephants.

Facing this situation, Vietnam is now setting up thier first elephant conservation centre, which will need all support it can get, financially, but also with breeding material and breeding know-how.

As far as I can see, theres 16 living Vitnamese elephants in US and Europe, of which at least 50% are in breeding age, (and the rest could give moral "aunt" support to the potential breeding females) which could contribute to a captive breeding project in Vietnam. 16 elephants is nothing compared to what Franz van den Brink imported to Europe in the 80s, and it should be quite possible to send those elephants back, to a country that has almost run out of breeding material, with only a handful females in breeding age left.

Of course, the captive breeding of elephants must also be safe and succesful for the elephants. In order to acchieve this, Vietnam may need some support, not only with elephants, but also with experience.

Something I hope both EEP and SSP will consider to give. Its payback time...

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