SINGAPORE: The Singapore Zoo was jam-packed during the recent Deepavali public holiday as happy families roamed around the exhibits. Visitors snapped photographs of the proboscis monkeys and the hornbills relaxing in the afternoon sun.
But mere metres away at the zoo's hospital, there was palpable tension as around a dozen vets crowded around a sedated clouded leopard. One vet kept a close eye on the anaesthesia level, ensuring that the 15kg carnivorous cat remained sedated, while another examined its razor-sharp jaws.
Dr Abraham Mathew, a senior vet with Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), wiped his sweaty eyebrows as he placed a catheter into the leopard’s urethra - a tube that carries urine and semen through the penis.
Then, it flowed. The leopard’s semen filled the vial; barely three drops but it was enough for the team’s senior endocrine technician Josephine Kawi.
She would take the vial to the adjacent laboratory and examine the sperm through a microscope. The semen was then stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen, to be used for subsequent research or even artificial insemination if the need arises.
The whole procedure took about 40 minutes, but it could make a significant difference to the survival of the species.
Besides the clouded leopard, other animals to have undergone the same "reproductive assessment" procedure include the red panda, tapir and siamang - all three are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. So, too, has the giant panda which along with the clouded leopard are listed as vulnerable.
The importance of the work of Dr Mathew and his team cannot be understated. “If we don’t make the effort to do programmes like these in zoos, sometimes we will just lose our animals,” he said.
ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION ONLY AS LAST RESORT
Dr Mathew, who has worked with WRS for nine years, also stressed how important it was that the team perfected the techniques of collecting sperm and artificial insemination for various animals.
“If we don’t try out these techniques, if we don’t get the techniques correct, when the time comes, it’s actually going to be too late,” he said.
“So we cannot wait for the species to be on the brink of extinction before we try to do something,” added the assistant director for WRS’ veterinary services.
The collected sperm cells are stored in the zoo's cryobank and the semen could prove useful even after the animal dies.
"We still have their genetic material with us and in time, if we get a female from the same species we can attempt to (insert) his semen into her," he added.
But Dr Mathew maintains that artificial insemination - the process of depositing sperm cells from a male into a female’s reproductive tract - is only done as a last resort if natural breeding fails.
For the animals that underwent reproductive assessment, he pointed out that all the species, except the red panda and the giant panda, have successfully reproduced in captivity at WRS.
Where natural breeding has failed, such as with the giant panda and the African lion, artificial insemination has been attempted. Although this has not been successful, Dr Mathew said the team will keep trying until it gets some results.
'FRUSTRATING' TO BREED GIANT PANDA BECAUSE OF SHORT TIME FRAME
Ms Kawi, who was hired by WRS to lead the team efforts in monitoring the giant pandas, acknowledged that there has been a lot of interest from the Singapore public in the efforts to help the pair – Jia Jia and Kai Kai – conceive.
“I think it’s nice because you have the public cheering them on but (people) also don’t understand how frustrating it is to breed giant pandas because of this once-a-year window that we have,” said Ms Kawi, who has worked with WRS for five years.
“So when I can I would try to explain how hard it is. But it’s really nice and every time they see me they will ask if there's a baby panda on the way,” she added.
The team only gets a small window of opportunity – 24 to 36 hours every year – in which the female giant panda Jia Jia is fertile during the breeding season. During this period, which is typically from March until May, the team will collect a semen sample from Kai Kai and inseminate Jia Jia.
The team has attempted the process unsuccessfully four times, but Ms Kawi said that the team will continue doing so for as long as the pandas remain under the care of WRS.
“My fingers are crossed every year. We found out yesterday from our giant panda check that (Jia Jia’s) reproductive tract is in very good condition. Her ovaries look good, her tract looks good, and all the sperm that we have collected from the male also looks very good,” she added.
“They still have some more years here so I'm very hopeful that we will get a baby from them before they leave.”
Dr Mathew has a bigger wish - and that is for people to see zoos as more than just a visitor attraction. Zoos, he said, also try “to sustain species in captivity using science and the art form of keeping animals and breeding them”.
He also expressed hope that the public would participate and contribute to conservation programmes by the WRS and other organisations.
“Because I think there's so much going on, not just at our zoo, but in our region and globally. There’s so much effort to try to preserve these animals for our future.”