Romancing the Elephant

The team collects the semen for genetic and reproductive research. It's not just a simple matter of parading around a female elephant as eye candy for males and waiting for the results.

By | Thu 29 Jul 2010

Collecting elephant semen is a very sticky business.

Manual Collection, as this complex procedure is known, involves forceful stimulation of the elephant’s rectum and a small team of scientists to collect, store and analyse the semen. These guys deserve medals for their dedication to species preservation.

The collection and analyses happens at the Elephant Hospital Project (EHP), which is a part of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang.

The EHP opened in 1993 and is focused on researching, enriching and strengthening the elephant population in Thailand. It is the first facility of its kind in the world that provides free treatment to elephants in need with a dual focus on research. The team is headed by Dr. Sittidet Mahasawangkul, who is a devoted patron of elephant care.

The team collects the semen for genetic and reproductive research. It’s not just a simple matter of parading around a female elephant as eye candy for males and waiting for the results. To be used scientifically, the semen has to be collected and preserved in a controlled environment. Elephants are not Casanovas, nor do they have a wild libido, so scientists assist by intervening in the natural process.

Dr. Sittidet from the EHP describes manual collection as “a hand massage in the anus of the elephant”. It’s more like a vigorous penetration of the elephant’s rectum, as a gloved human arm reaches in to stimulate the prostate – the whole arm. Dr. Sittidet notes that the elephants don’t mind the intrusion because “it feels good for them when they ejaculate, so they like it”. Between 10ml and 20ml are collected at a time, it depends on the elephant. It helps that they are previously introduced to the process through regular examination and manual fecal removal when constipated.

The mission of the EHP collection team is to help fortify dwindling elephant numbers by giving them a hand…quite literally. The method currently in use was discovered quite by accident, when scientists were trying to help the elephants with constipation. While it may seem more logical to simply perform phallic masturbation on the elephant, there is a reason for using this more invasive method. Elephant penes are very sensitive and can flail around uncontrollably if not handled correctly. At more than one metre long, this can actually be dangerous to handlers. Wary scientists have been known to end up knocked unconscious or with black eyes after being wacked by a frenzied elephant member.

The¬†elephants aren’t drugged and they don’t get soft music, scientists in lingerie or a post-coital cigarette. Just a latex covered arm. In Dr. Sittidet’s experience “the process can take 10-15 mins or sometimes longer depending on the elephant”. The semen is then taken back to the lab facility for cryopreservation in liquid nitrogen at -196 C.

When a female elephant is ready to be inseminated, the team picks the male and female pair with the best physical characteristics to produce healthy babies – this helps to ensure the species population. Sperm is collected from bull elephants “18-30 years of age and not more”. Dr. Sittidet explains that, “Elephants are like humans this way. If we collect from old elephants, we don’t get good quality samples” so he seeks out the young pickings.

Dr. Sittidet picks trained veterinary scientists for his team because “some people think it is not clean to do this, that it is a very dirty job. Only a veterinarian can do this and not get upset.” The people on his team care about elephants and their conservation enough to simply look the other way and put science before human perception.

Other forms of semen collection for elephants are also used. Some scientists have had success with rectal electrostimulation which involves a rectal probe that is inserted into the elephant’s anus and a light shock treatment. Additionally, a team in Washington has developed an artificial vagina and has trained elephants to use it as a means of collection. Surprisingly, the semen collected in this way shows lower motility, or performance output, than the method of collection used by Dr. Sittidet and his team. Manual rectal probing seems to be an elephant fetish.

Aside from the EHP and the rehabilitation centre, the organisation also provides a mahout training course for interested participants. The courses range from a one day session to three day durations and include accommodation. Visits to the camp to view the elephant shows or to try out riding or bathing one are also available. The staff at the centre is comprised of people who love elephants and care about their preservation.

The EHP impregnates only three to four female elephants per year due to the incredible length of their menstrual cycles, which can last up to four months. The gestation period is 22 months, which has to be annoyingly long for the females, but accounts for the few pregnancies per year that the EHP oversees. Although the work of Dr. Sittidet and his team may seem distasteful at points to some, it is an especially valuable contribution to the elephant population and to Thailand as a whole.

Dr Sittidet: 081 884 5834