Science Meets Rhino Psychology

While Cincinnati conducted their research and breeding, they shared their discoveries and resources with SRS, who were trying to breed their male Torgamba with female Bina. Like their colleagues in Ohio, SRS faced problems with the animals fighting rather than mating. “The most important thing we learned was that the female could not be bred at any time,” Widodo Ramono, executive director of Yayasan Badak Indonesia (the Indonesia Rhino Foundation), told Mongabay.

Cincinnati provided equipment and training so they could determine when the female was in estrous. The rhinos were trained to tolerate ultrasounds and blood draws. Staff developed their own protocols, which involve keepers watching 24 hours a day for behavioral signs that the female is ready. “Then the veterinarian checks with ultrasound to confirm,” says Ramono. “Then we put the male in the pen, the female can be brought closer, and only when the female in position to be ready, then we let the male out to meet the female. That is the safest way to reduce the possibility of fighting.”

The pair did eventually mate successfully, but unfortunately no pregnancies resulted. After Torgamba died in 2011 it was confirmed that he was infertile, with malformed sperm.

Still, the staff knew basically what needed to be done when Andalas arrived in 2007. But animals are individuals, and before a calf could be produced, they had some personal problems that needed to be worked through.

Andalas was kind of like a kid moving to his parents’ homeland after being raised in a different culture. Ramono says some of his behavior was clearly that of a zoo animal. Rhino courtship was a foreign language to him, although on the bright side, his background made it a little easier to break up the fights. “He was more close to humans, and was more attracted to bananas,” Ramono says. “So when he would fight with the female, and we showed them a banana, he would come for the banana.”

Andalas and Bina meet at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Dedi Candra.
Andalas and Bina meet at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Dedi Candra.

It took a couple of years of gradual introductions before Andalas started to show proper courtship behavior. “By making them close to each other, Andalas in a pen and the female outside from time to time, he learned to behave finally.” The first successful mating was achieved in 2010.

Andalas isn’t the only one of the group who needed a dose of rhino psychology. Rosa’s problems were surprisingly similar. For the first few years of her life, she had lived among villagers near a national park. When she arrived at SRS in 2005, they were unable to get her to breed. “She was very afraid of other rhinos’ presence and would run for help to the keeper,” says Zulfi Arsan, senior vet at SRS.

In the last couple of years, staff have managed to solve this problem. “What we are doing is to make Rosa feel safe when Andalas approaches by standing beside her,” says Arsan. It took patience and many attempts — first just allowing him to come near, then mounting for short periods, until finally they mated. (Of course, with Sumatran rhinos, there’s always something — it turned out Rosa has an unusually thick hymen, and it took over a year of attempts for it to be penetrated, just this past April.)

While finally getting their rhinos to mate was a huge accomplishment, it’s never a sure thing. Not every mating results in conception, and females in both Cincinnati and Sumatra lost multiple pregnancies before eventually giving birth. But now SRS have a track record of success and are looking to the future. At the moment, Harapan is still settling in, Ratu is still raising Delilah, and Bina and Andalas are having relationship problems, so hopes are focused on getting Rosa and Andalas to conceive.

The Last Three

There is another group trying to breed Sumatran rhinos, and the challenges there are even greater.

Last year, the Sumatran rhino was declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia. The last three members of the Malaysian subspecies are cared for by the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) in a facility in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Both females have reproductive pathologies — cysts and tumors in the uterus — and the male’s sperm quality is poor.  While the females are still producing eggs, natural breeding doesn’t seem possible.

A captive Bornean rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) named Tam in Sabah, Malaysia, where only three captive rhinos are known to survive. Photo by Jeremy Hance.
A captive Bornean rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) named Tam in Sabah, Malaysia, where only three captive rhinos are known to survive. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

“With these three, the choice was to let them live out their life just out of courtesy as it were, or euthanize them, or to try in vitro fertilization. That’s a stark choice,” says John Payne, executive director of BORA. “Luckily, with my little organization and the government of Malaysia and our stalwart donor for seven years, we agreed to try something, and that was in vitro fertilization.”

For the last few years, they’ve been working with scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin to retrieve eggs and sperm and attempt to produce an embryo in the lab. Critics have expressed doubt that success is possible in the near future, but Payne is hopeful. He points out that it took less than ten years to figure out how to produce the first human via in vitro fertilization, and that “hundreds and thousands of cows and horses are made this way every year.”

They are developing local expertise so they can make attempts more often than the couple of times a year that the team from Leibniz can travel there. They now have a Malaysian veterinary team that can put the rhinos under general anesthesia and that can collect semen. At this point the obstacles that concern Payne are more bureaucratic than scientific: One major problem is that their foundation funding ended this past July. He’s currently waiting to find out if the government of Malaysia will fund the continuation of their work, including basic care for the rhinos.

Payne is also frustrated by what he sees as a lack of action at high levels of government that is standing in the way of cooperation between the breeding programs in Malaysia and Indonesia. This is a particular concern given the fact that if BORA’s team does manage to produce an embryo, they’re going to need a female from elsewhere to serve as surrogate mother.

The Numbers Game

Rhino calf at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Rhett Butler.
One of two rhino calves at Indonesia’s Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, the first captive births in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The problem for the Sumatran rhino is small numbers — small numbers in the wild divided into small population groups, and a very small number in captivity. One question this raises is genetic diversity. Captive populations of endangered species usually have their breeding managed with an eye to genetics, but with this rhino, they don’t really have choices. Terri Roth of the Cincinnati Zoo, who led the research team that produced the first calf, says that when they were losing pregnancies at Cincinnati, they did a genetic analysis of the founder male and female to see if they were closely related. “They were not, which gave us some hope that maybe the population has shrunk kind of quickly so the gene pool is still pretty diverse even through the numbers are low,” she says.

The other obvious question is why don’t we gather all the animals that are still in the wild, most of which are in groups so small they are unlikely to be viable. Ramono says everyone involved agrees this is the next step, but the plan needs to be accepted by the Indonesian government before action can be taken. Their previous conservation strategy plan covered the years 2001-2017, and the new one is in the process of being drafted.

Payne agrees that bringing together as many of the remaining animals from the wild is critical, and it has to happen quickly. “The trajectory of the species in Indonesia has followed Malaysia about 30 years later,” he says. “Lack of action means that Indonesia will be like we are 30 years from now.” He expresses concern that once those animals are captured, many may have the same reproductive pathologies as the animals at BORA. These conditions result from years of not breeding, which is likely to be the case in the small isolated populations.

Is there hope?

Such a huge amount of effort, directed at such a small number of animals, raises another big question: Can we really bring them back from such small numbers? And should we, when there are so many other species that need help?

Payne points out that while people — even those in the business — tend to lump all rhinos together, the Sumatran rhino is its own genus. Technically, that makes the five species of rhino as different from each other as are orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas. “It’s very rare that a genus goes extinct,” he says. “There should be some sort of obligation to try and prevent the first extinction of a mammal genus in this century, and the one that will go extinct without some effort is the Sumatran rhino.”

Is it really possible, though? Other large mammals have recovered from very small numbers. Roth points to the white rhino and Payne to the European bison. “The last wild one we killed in 1927. At that time, there were 55 in zoos,” he says. What’s more, those 55 were all descended from only 12 animals. Now, there are around 5,500.

“I have to be optimistic. It is our experience that we can breed the rhino,” says Ramono. And Arsan says, “I still believe that we still can save Sumatran Rhino from brink of extinction. We now have better understanding about this species than decades ago, and new knowledge and techniques to do propagation and stopping or reducing mortality.”

We have the science; we may still have the numbers. Now it comes down to people. Roth has hope too. But, she says, it will take more than just talk. “It can’t just be a lot of pomp and circumstance at meetings about saving the species. It has to be real action, it has to be committed, and it has to happen in a timely manner.”

Banner Image: A rhino calf running at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Article published by Isabel Esterman
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