The International Conservation Center near Fairhope will house an elephant frozen sperm bank.
A reproductive lab will be housed there for research and implantation, Willie Theison, elephant manager for the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
"This (the successful insemination) is incredible news," Dr. Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo, said in a written statement. "The success of this procedure creates more opportunities to introduce new genetics into the African elephant population among zoos, diversifying the population and ensuring its ability to grow into the future."
Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt, a reproductive specialist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, developed a program to collect and freeze elephant sperm for later use. He titled his program Project Frozen Dumbo.
Staff from the Pittsburgh Zoo joined Hildebrandt, researchers and veterinarians on a trip to South Africa two years ago. They collected sperm from 15 wild bulls. A portion of the collection was sent to ZooParc DeBeauval in France. Hildebrandt and the Vienna Zoo staff inseminated a 26-year-old elephant, Tonga, in November. An ultrasound confirmed that Tonga is now nine months into her 22-month pregnancy. The calf is expected in late 2013 or early 2014.
The original goal was to set up the European sperm bank, Theison said. Hildebrandt said it could be done for the United States. Baker got approval for the project. Last March zoo staff returned to Africa to collect sperm from 15 elephants.
"The quality of the semen was actually better because we got it in the spring," Theison said. "We documented the samples, we have photos of the bulls and information about their temperaments, sort of like an elephantharmony.com. I measured the heights, feet and trunk lengths. We picked a couple that we said would be great matches for our females."
Although Theison can joke about the elephant matches, wild bull sperm is being collected for serious reasons. When sperm is taken from Jackson, the Pittsburgh Zoo's bull elephant, it is cooled but not frozen. It has to be used the same day as it arrives at the zoo housing the female elephant.
"A lot of time, the females don't cycle on clockwork and so they don't conceive," he said. "The beauty of frozen sperm is that you can keep it longer and can see when is the optimal time to breed the female. That improves the odds of conception more."