Northern White Rhinos – How To Save the Rarest Mammals In the World? (Part 2)
At the time of the transfer of the northern white rhinos from a Czech zoo to a conservancy in Kenya, hopes were high that it would lead to successful breeding in the semi-wild habitat. It was a chance to save a rare species.
Three years later, they haven’t yet been realised.
Crucial Cooperation is not Happening
“I’m sorry, but I cannot confirm the pregnancy of the females,” says Franz Schwarzenberger, a scientist at the Veterinary University of Vienna. He is the person who receives rhinos’ fecal samples from Kenya collected by Doyo and his colleagues. From these samples he is able to find out whether the female rhinos are pregnant. Is a mistake during analysis possible? “The samples look very reliable,” Schwarzenberger says. He explains that during the period of 70-150 days of rhino’s pregnancy, the level of hormones increases about 10 or 15 times above regular levels. “Such an increase cannot be missed.”
When trying to understand why the females haven’t bred so far we have to go back to September 2008. Back then, a large group of experts gathered in the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic to confer about the future of the northern white rhinos. Most of the scientists present at that meeting supported the animals’ transfer to Africa. Dana Holečková, then the director of the Dvůr Králové Zoo, and Přemysl Rabas, its current director, both told the author of this article that Lars Versteege, a European coordinator for white rhinos, and Robert Hermes and Thomas Hildebrandt, scientists from the Berlin Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), were among the supporters.
But in reality it was a bit different. Most attendants of the meeting indeed agreed that the animals should be transferred to Africa at some point in the future. However, scientists from IZW Berlin proposed to artificially inseminate females before the transfer. They had tried it in the Dvůr Králové Zoo before, but without success. It was agreed at the meeting that scientists from IZW Berlin would get access to the females and before their possible transfer would once again try to artificially inseminate them.
But the then-director of the Czech zoo Holečková did not mention this in the meeting’s conclusions, neither did she write it in the so-called Conservation Action Plan for Northern White Rhinos. According to the zoo’s director Rabas, an attempt to artificially inseminate females that don’t cycle would be unsuccessful anyway. And if they had cycled and showed regular sexual activity, then it wouldn’t have made sense to transfer them to Africa.
Scientists from IZW Berlin also presented a population analysis at the meeting, which wasn’t recorded in the Conservation Action Plan either. “Our analysis showed that with the current reproductive rate of the remaining healthy northern white rhinos, they will go extinct,” says Robert Hermes from IZW Berlin. The Action Plan contains only the population model presented by Richard Emslie, a rhino expert from IUCN. His model showed that the northern white rhinos would almost surely survive. But his model was based on a presumption that rhinos from the zoo will be put together with healthy wild animals. Nothing like this has happened.
Scientists from IZW Berlin protested against the wording of the Conservation Action Plan and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) decided not to support the rhinos’ transfer to Africa. The whole conflict turned personal, partly due to Holečková’s overbearing manner to some of the European zoos and to some of the European Endangered species Programmes belonging to EAZA. Unfortunately, the EAZA statements didn’t calm the situation either, as they only emphasised artificial insemination. If the Dvůr Králové Zoo hadn’t accepted it and hadn’t invested in artificial insemination, it should have considered sending the rhinos to another zoo in Europe.
Due to the controversy, the condition from the Conservation Action Plan that the transfer would happen only with support from EAZA was forgotten. Before the transfer, scientists from IZW Berlin examined and froze semen from the male rhinos. “There we found that Súdán had a rectal tumour!” says Robert Hermes from IZW Berlin. They got no access to the females.
“If we try to artificially inseminate them, we will have only one option. The trans-location to Africa means to open even other possibility – to give them a chance to live in their natural habitat. And the artificial insemination will be still applicable,” Rabas said in September 2008.
Holečková wrote in 2009 that “the role of the team from IZW Berlin will be essential, especially if the females don’t get pregnant in two years.” The females didn’t get pregnant, but experts from IZW Berlin were not contacted and no one has tried to cooperate with them on the issue.
It was similar with the zoologists and keepers who had long been caring for the rhinos in the Dvůr Králové Zoo. With the help from foreign colleagues they successfully managed the trans-location of the animals to Kenya, but after their basic acclimatization they were, despite their vast experience with animals, cut off from any participation in the project.
Thus the project that should have combined all possible ways to save the northern white rhinos ended as a bet on only one approach in which some important experts are absent.
All images by Jan Stejskal/Ekolist.cz. They show three northern white rhinos (Súdán, Nájin and Fatu) in 2008 in the Dvůr Králové Zoo.