It takes a lot of scheduling for us to come in and collect elephant sperm. This is not a one-person job at all. Usually, the process starts no later than 9 a.m., before the crowds at the zoos get too busy or it gets too hot.
Any facility that actually owns bull (male) elephants has its own specialized enclosures that vary from zoo to zoo. They are huge, high-roofed barns, big enough to – you know – hold an elephant. Typically, we have what's called an elephant rail that goes around the enclosures that are at least 10 inches in diameter and made of iron. These are set up to safely keep in the elephants, and that's critical. It's necessary for zoos who have bull elephants to keep this type of restraining device. Obviously, these are big animals, so it's not as if you can use any old chicken-wire fence.
Inside the enclosure, I've got a board placed on top of a bale of hay where I place my microscope, my slides and my pipettes. This is probably the eighth elephant in North America I've collected from. Eventually, the bull elephant comes in and I'm just standing there watching everyone do their business.
At that point I just really, really hope that it's going to work.
The keeper in the front is constantly feeding the elephant treats, to keep him occupied. He gets fruits, snacks, food – whatever he likes.
In the back are the rest of us. The vets will go in and they'll do an ultrasound to make sure the elephant actually has sperm inside.
The actual collection method is a rectal massage. I'm sure you understand some of the jokes the teams make.
For the record, I don't actually do the sperm collection, I stand beside the elephant with a beaker.
The keepers do the rectal massage and one person holds a pole connected to a tube waiting to collect the sperm. As for the actual rectal massage, it usually takes around five minutes.
So once we have the sperm sample, they give it to me. I put it in the beaker and look at it under a microscope. I'll check and see the type of quality it is and then add a liquid that we make up with various buffer chemicals in it. Usually, it has egg yolk in it; that's a very normal addition to sperm in order to protect it while we freeze it.
Having a cheap and easy way of freezing sperm is important for breeding. Basically, we just use a big insulated container to cool the sperm instead of having to refrigerate it. We use a dry-shipper that has sponges to absorb the liquid nitrogen to keep the sample under controlled temperatures, which also makes it safe to ship. After all, it's better to move the sperm than to move the elephant. This way, we have a stock of sperm from the bull elephants to preserve their genetics.
Right now, elephants are under threat by habitat loss and poaching and while there are people out in the field that are dedicated to trying to protect these animals, it is a battle and it's not always a win.
We are losing elephants and with these losses, we are losing their genetics.
The idea here is that we can potentially go in and collect sperm from these bull elephants and at the very least, we haven't lost their genetics. Even if they end up being poached, then in some future time, whether it be in the zoo or in the wild, we're still able to get offspring from them. They'll still contribute their genes to the next generation.
This actually makes an impact on the conservation of the species and we are generating information that can help facilitate that.
It's not the most glamorous work, but all I've ever wanted to do is save animals. I don't really care how dirty or smelly or messy it is. So as long as I'm contributing to conservation, then I'll do whatever it takes.
Laura Graham is an adjunct professor for the department of animal biosciences at the University of Guelph. She is currently in Africa working on a project related to poachers and gamete retrieval.
As told to Richa Syal.