LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Aug. 5, 2009 – Led by Disney’s Animal Programs, an international coalition of veterinarians from conservation groups, zoos, universities and private industry have returned from Africa after effectively sterilizing seven bull elephants in Swaziland’s Big Game Parks.
As a result of this effort, Swaziland wildlife officials will be able to better manage the elephant population in wildlife parks and reserves over the next decade.
Elephant overpopulation in wildlife parks and reserves in Swaziland and other southern Africa countries is a growing concern 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. One of the ways to address this concern is with an innovative population management tool developed by an international veterinary team to help save habitat without harming elephants.
“Surgical vasectomy helps reduce elephant birth rates, while maintaining normal hormone levels and common elephant social behaviors,” according to veterinarian Dr. Mark Stetter, director of Animal Health at Disney’s Animal Programs. “With this procedure, we’re pleased to help wildlife officials in Africa balance the need to provide quality elephant care with an eye toward sustaining the ecosystem for other native animals.”
In July 2004, this team of experts performed the first ever sterilization of free-ranging 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 four years, the team has sterilized 24 bull elephants at a variety of locations including Welgevonden Wildlife Reserve, Songimvelo Wildlife Reserve, Pongola Game Reserve and Swaziland’s Big Game Parks.
During this most recent trip, the international team helped teach the procedure to veterinarians from the South African National Parks Board and the University of Pretoria Onderstepoort Veterinary Hospital, enabling local experts to perform the surgery when necessary. Developing regional expertise is critical to the long-term success of the program.
“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,” said Stetter.
Elephants are unique among most mammals since their testes are internal and require abdominal surgery to perform a vasectomy, making the relatively simple procedure much more complex to conduct on elephants in the wild.
This innovative 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 diminished, procedure time is significantly reduced and post-operative discomfort is minimized.
This coalition, along with Swazi elephant behavioral researchers, will monitor the elephant populations over the next several years as part of a long term behavioral study investigating potential changes in elephant behavior associated with this population management plan.
This international collaborative effort 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, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, 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.