Kubwa and Ivory, two pregnant African elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo, are being treated as if they were their species' last hope. And with the numbers of these animals dwindling around the world, they just might be.
Fewer than 500,000 of the creatures remain in the wild, and less than 300 are in zoos worldwide, according to the International Species Information System.
Past efforts to breed the animals in captivity have largely failed, with only four African elephants born at zoos in the past decade. Zookeepers hope a new artificial insemination technique could improve these numbers.
Without a successful breeding program, "in 20 years we may not have any elephants left in captivity," said Debbie Olson, the Indianapolis Zoo's director of elephant conservation.
Kubwa and Ivory are believed to be the first African elephants impregnated via the groundbreaking procedure, which uses semen collected from male elephants at zoos in Missouri and Florida.
In June, a zoo in Springfield, Mo., announced the first successful artificial insemination of a smaller Asian elephant.
"I don't think that this is a panacea for the issue," said Michael Hutchins, director of conservation for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "But it is a tool that will give us more options in our efforts to sustain the captive population."
Scientists say lessons learned from the insemination process could also help elephants survive in the wild, where they are threatened by poaching and habitat destruction.
Past breeding efforts were largely doomed, as zoos had few male African elephants available for breeding. Researchers also knew little about the reproductive cycle of the females, which stand eight feet tall and weigh between 6,000 and 10,000 pounds.
Kubwa and Ivory are the only two of the zoo's five female African elephants to become pregnant. Two other attempts failed.
Zookeepers got the good news in July, when an ultrasound confirmed 22-year-old Kubwa was pregnant. Her calf is due in March 2000 after a 22-month gestation.
Ivory, a 17-year-old cow, is due to deliver her calf in September 2000. Keepers were ecstatic when an ultrasound on January 29 revealed she was pregnant.
"It shows that the first time wasn't a fluke," said Olson.