With the arrival of Guillermina, the sanctuary’s youngest elephant resident, and watching her interactions with some of the older ladies, we have received many questions about whether or not the girls here are physically able to produce their own children, and if that’s in the plans for the future. While we understand the curiosity and know that the idea of our sanctuary elephants being mothers sounds wonderful and cute, we want to make sure to educate about why the elephants here at the sanctuary will never be bred.
The gestation period of a baby elephant is around 22 months – the longest of any mammal. Most mammals have only one corpus luteum, which is a temporary gland that controls hormone levels during pregnancy; elephants have as many as 11. WIthout getting into the exact details of pregnancy in elephants, it can be simply stated that the physical toll that carrying a child has on the body of any female elephant is extreme, even in the healthiest of elephants.
Female elephants can give birth at approximately four to five-year intervals and have been documented as having up to 12 offspring per lifetime. They generally give birth from as young as 7 years old to 22 years old. Most females give birth for the first time between 14 and 15 years old in African elephants, and slightly later for Asian elephants. The ability to become pregnant remains fairly consistent between the ages of 16 and 40, and then declines slightly, though some females over 60 have shown through hormone testing that they are still having menstrual cycles. All of the elephants at sanctuary are considered geriatric and over the age of 49 so, aside from Guillermina, none of them are the ideal age to carry a full-term pregnancy.
The physical and psychological toll that the elephants at sanctuary have been through is far beyond what we can understand. Their years in captivity are something that only they will ever know and the greatest thing that we can provide for them is the ability to heal – physically, spiritually, and mentally. To put them in a situation to be bred or to carry a pregnancy for 22 months is not appropriate for their age, their physical condition, or something that the sanctuary supports in general. Additionally, our accrediting body, the Global Federation of Elephant Sanctuaries believes that true does not engage in intentional breeding.
Although we are lucky enough to witness the healing of these animals every day and have the privilege to share it with all of our supporters, sanctuary is still captivity. It is the best that captivity has to offer, but the species truly cannot be saved here; that needs to happen in their home range. Bringing babies into the circumstances of sanctuary would not give them the lives that they deserve. While we understand the charm of a baby elephant and what it could do to the herd dynamic, our greatest mission is to provide a healthy home to elephants who are already stuck in the circle of captivity as a result of human desires. We do not believe it’s ethical or appropriate to continue that cycle by introducing breeding. Our goal is to provide a space for these elephants to live out the rest of their lives focusing on themselves, their healing, and their relationships with each other, and we will dedicate our days to doing so in any way we can.
Photo of the lovely Rana, our oldest lady at sanctuary