Disney’s Animal Progams Leads International Effort to Manage Elephant Population

Elephant VasectomyLAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., July 2, 2009 – Disney’s Animal Programs is leading an international coalition of veterinarians, conservation groups, zoos, universities and private industry to conduct a series of procedures to effectively sterilize male elephants to help reduce elephant overpopulation in areas of southern Africa.

The team plans to perform laparoscopic vasectomies on eight bull elephants in Swaziland’s Big Game Parks. For the past five years, the team has performed the procedure on nearly 20 male elephants in an effort to reduce the elephant birth rates in wildlife reserves, while maintaining normal hormone levels and common social behaviors for the individual elephants.

Elephant overpopulation in wildlife parks and reserves in southern Africa is a growing problem that can have devastating effects on the natural habitat as well as other animal species that live there. Wildlife officials in several countries are considering culling elephants in order to control the population growth.

“Elephant population management is one of the most critical conservation issues facing many areas of Africa” said Dr. Mark Stetter, Director of Animal Health at Disney’s Animal Programs and principal investigator. “Through our recent successes, elephant vasectomy has been an effective tool at several wildlife reserves to reduce the need for culling, and help support the ecosystem. As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Disney’s Animal Programs is committed to pioneering creative solutions to problems facing all wildlife by using the technology and tools available to address conservation and wildlife issues.”

In July 2004, this team of experts performed the first ever sterilization of free-ranging female elephants. In 2005, the group began its work with bull elephants and started developing laparoscopic vasectomy techniques for sterilizing males in the wild. During the last three years the team has sterilized bull elephants at the Welgevonden Wildlife Reserve, Songimvelo Wildlife Reserve and the Pongola Game Reserve.

Elephants are unique among most mammals since their testes are internal and require abdominal surgery to perform a vasectomy, making the traditional procedure nearly impossible to do in the wild.

This innovative new procedure involves state-of-the-art medical equipment specifically developed for this project and scaled from human to elephant proportions. The elephant laparoscopic equipment was built by KARL STORZ at their headquarters in Germany.

Laparoscopic surgery allows the surgeon to view the internal organs on a monitor and use long thin instruments to perform the surgery. With this type of minimally invasive surgery, the risk of infection is greatly reduced, procedure time is significantly reduced and post-operative discomfort is minimized. All bull elephants that have had this procedure have experienced full recovery without side effects from the procedure.

In collaboration with the Space for Elephants Foundation, the entire elephant population at the Swaziland’s Big Game Parks is part of a long term behavioral study investigating any potential changes in elephant behavior associated with this population management plan. The major focus of this year’s work will be in-country capacity building.

Veterinarians from the Ondersetpoort Veterinary Institute at the University of Pretoria and from the South African Parks Board will participate in the elephant procedures and learn to perform the surgery. Developing this kind of local expertise is critical to the long-term success of the program.

This is an international collaborative project that brings together conservation groups, universities and private industry including Disney’s Animal Programs, Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, Covidien Health Care, KARL STORZ, Catchco Africa Specialized Wildlife Capture, the Veterinary College at the Onderstepoort campus of the University of Pretoria and Swaziland’s Big Game Parks to address this complex problem.

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