Saving the Elephants

By: Jeanny Lavache

The sad truth is elephants don’t stand a chance against poachers, or at least they didn’t before researchers like Chris Mortensen and Danielle Arnold stepped in.

“The elephant population is on a downwards trajectory with poaching in the wild,” said Chris Mortensen, assistant professor in animal science at the University of Florida.

Every year for the last five years Mortensen has given the same talk on the current status of wild life conservation to the exotic animals club, but this year he really stressed the issue of the declining elephant population.

“It’s projected that in 10 to 20 years they may be extinct in the wild,” Mortensen said. “And in 100 years they may be completely gone from the Earth if current trends continue.”

This is why Mortensen, Arnold and researchers from South Africa are coming together to work on the Preserving the Future of Elephants project.

Preserving the Future of Elephants is an elephant research project aimed at finding the best method of preserving elephant gametes and increasing elephant genetic diversity. The project’s funds is being collected through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform.

“It’s very hard to get money for conservation research, so we put together a video and a blog write up so people can know what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” said Danielle Arnold, a PhD student at the university of Florida.

The project is focusing on collecting, analyzing and preserving male elephant gametes. The problem is the researchers aren’t getting good quality semen samples from the elephants and are trying to figure out why that is.

“We want to look at the basic biology of these sperm cells,” Arnold said. “By looking at the good and bad samples we can see if there may be an additive we can add to the semen or if there is a dietary supplement that will help improve the quality.”

It is imperative that researchers find a way to get better semen samples in order to successfully inseminate female elephants when needed. According to Arnold this research can really aid in the advancement of elephant preservation.

“We’re trying to find ways of enhancing the process we already have in order to make freezing better,” Arnold said.

African and Asian elephants are both in trouble, but Asian elephants have it worse due to their habitat changing. There is barely any wildlife left for Asian elephants.

“There are about 350,000 to 375,000 elephants max left in the wild, and we’re losing over 100 elephants a day,” Mortensen said.

Although the elephant population is falling drastically there is still hope. Mortensen uses the Przewalski’s horse as an example saying that in the 70s there were only 12 of them left on Earth, but after zoos came together and created a very careful breeding plan there are now about 2,000 today.

The Preserving a Future of Elephants project is trying to raise $10,000 by the end of October.

“The money that is raised will go directly to elephant conservation and research,” Arnold said.

Mortensen’s love and passion for elephants has really made an impact on those who hear him talk about it.

“It’s really noble what he’s doing to save these elephants, and seeing how passionate he is about his work is so inspiring,” said Madison Tonic, a sophomore animal science major.

Mortensen, Arnold and their colleagues believe that through the preservation of the male elephant gametes the species still stands a chance.

“If we remain complacent and stand by it is going to happen; the elephants will go extinct,” Mortensen said.