By Sally Wiggin
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 10 million wild elephants in Africa. Today, their numbers hover around 400,000. And The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates elephants are being slaughtered by poachers for their ivory at the rate of 96 a day.
"They are taking the big bulls, the breeding bulls. They are taking the matriarchs and the older females. The ones in the herd that have all the knowledge and all the information on how to get to water holes, and where the feeding areas are," said the Pittsburgh Zoo's elephant manager, Willie Theison.
Theison oversees Pittsburgh's flourishing African elephant herd, which has several young elephants, a matriarch, and two breeding females. The Pittsburgh Zoo's breeding bull, Jackson is one of the most prolific bulls in captivity in North America. He is now at the zoo's second breeding facility, the International Conservation Center. Jackson is slated to breed with one of three female elephants, rescued from Botswana. The government had ordered them to be killed, and the zoo here stepped in and flew them all the way to the ICC from South Africa.
And there is a pressing reason for this.
"Heaven forbid, if there are no elephants left in the wild. If we lost the captive populations of elephants, then we have no chance of reintroducing animals to depopulated areas in Africa," said Pittsburgh Zoo CEO Dr. Barbara Baker.
The threat is real. The international ivory trade has come to resemble the international drug trade. Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service destroyed six tons of ivory seized, to highlight the escalating global poaching crisis which is driven by organized crime syndicates.
The demand for ivory has never been higher. That demand is fueled in large part by a growing middle class in China. Ivory objects have been an important part of Chinese culture, and recent polls show that 84 percent of Chinese plan to buy ivory sometime in the near future.
So conservationists and researchers are looking to preserve the genetic diversity of the wild population, as bulls become a favorite target of poachers. The Pittsburgh Zoo is involved in a project called Frozen Dumbo.
Baker said, "We have the opportunity to go to Africa to collect sperm from wild bulls that someday may killed, and save their genetics to be able to inseminate female elephants around the world."
Baker says it is important for zoos to support organizations like Save the Elephants, which helps train rangers in African countries, and outfit them with the technology to combat the sophisticated poaching efforts. But they are also making sure they ensure the survival of an aging captive population, in case the worst happens.