African elephants in captivity are packing on the pounds, and experts warn that the rise in obesity is contributing to infertility, which could be detrimental to the survival of the species in zoos.
To get a handle on the problem, one group of researchers in Alabama is looking for a better way to measure body fat on the already huge animals.
Just like humans, elephants with excess fat are more likely to develop heart disease, arthritis and infertility, Daniella Chusyd, a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in a statement. Previous studies have shown an alarming number of African elephants in zoos have irregular or no ovarian cycles. [Elephants Images: The Biggest Land Animal]
Elephants in the wild are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, the illegal ivory trade that continues despite international efforts to shut it down. Zoos may be one of the few remaining ways to protect the species.
The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago issued a report in 2011 predicting that if the abnormal ovarian cycles and resulting low birthrates continue, then African elephants could disappear from zoos in the next 50 years. Zoos in the United States need to average about six births per year to maintain the population, but the current birthrate is only about three births per year. Obesity is suspected to be a major part of the problem.