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Saving Elephant Sex

If you could read an elephant's mind, would he be constantly thinking about sex? It's doubtful: Zookeepers in the US have a big problem--new elephant bloodlines are needed and it's hard to get enough elephant sperm.

The solution? Elephant sperm banks. The Pittsburgh Zoo has established the first elephant sperm bank in the US, joining an international groups of zoos, including ones in France. Semen will be collected from wild elephants in South Africa and frozen, then shipped to zoos that need more variety in order to avoid inbreeding.

One big advantage of artificial insemination is that bull elephants no longer have to be transported from zoo to zoo, which is expensive and can be hard on the animals. Anyway, only 39 of the 213 African elephants in US zoos, circuses and a few private parks are bulls, and even fewer of them are suitable for breeding.

Meanwhile, the sperm from a Pittsburgh bull elephant named Jackson has inseminated a majority of the female elephants in US zoos. He has "highly productive" semen, but this means that too many of the existing elephants are now related to him.

But in order for this to work, the elephant semen that has been gathered and frozen needs to be sent to US zoos. However, it's been sitting in South Africa for over a year because of bureaucratic red tape. South African officials have been slow to grant a permit to export the semen to America because they've never done it before. European zoos are facing a similar problem.

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