Northern White Rhinos – How To Save the Rarest Mammals In the World? (Part 3)
The future of the northern white rhinos, the rarest mammals in the world, is in question. The entire process of their trans-location from a zoo in the Czech Republic to a conservancy in Kenya has come under scrutiny.
The question that bothers conservationists is: are the female rhinos still fertile?
The Rhino Fertility Issue
One important aspect that emerged from the research of IZW Berlin scientists is this: if the rhino females don’t get pregnant by the age of around eight, rapid changes occur in their reproductive organs, which can lead to infertility.
According to Jiří Hrubý from the Dvůr Králové Zoo, both females were examined before the transfer and both were healthy. “But without pregnancy in Fatu, I would suspect she has developed some pathological lesions by now,“ says Robert Hermes from IZW Berlin.
The expert committee that decides on the future of the animals includes representatives of the Dvůr Králové Zoo as the owner of the animals, as well as the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Fauna and Flora International which owns the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Back to Africa that assisted in the transport of animals, and also the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy as a sister organisation to Ol Pejeta.
After their arrival at the Ol Pejeta, the northern white rhinos had to get used to the new environment. After acclimatisation, work with the animals started. “For example, Fatu was strongly tied to her mother Nájin and it was necessary to weaken the bond,” says Martin Mulama, the chief conservation officer of Ol Pejeta. The animals’ diet has been gradually changing (less feeding, more natural grazing), the animals were regrouped several times and also supplemented with southern white females.
But what next? Although everyone emphasises that the chance of this subspecies’ survival is very small, it is still not completely lost. According to Franz Schwarzenberger from the Veterinary University of Vienna, the estrous cycle of the female Nájin has improved during the last year. “Her profile was very bad until the end of 2011. Now her cycle is not completely regular, but it’s quite good and it could give us a hope,” he says.
“It is still possible that the first pregnancy will happen, thus it will get going and the following conceptions would be easier,” says zoologist Hrubý. He is reluctant to answer what exactly could be done due to his lack of detailed knowledge of the animals’ situation in Kenya. However, as a basic thing he suggests trying to stimulate the females’ sex drive by the presence of an additional southern white male in an enclosure adjacent to those with rhinos from the zoo. But southern white males who had lived in Ol Pejeta were transferred to another reservation due to fears of possible complications.
According to Robert Hermes from IZW Berlin, the possibility of artificial insemination of Fatu and Nájin should still be considered. “If breeding is not happening soon, northern white rhinos will be lost,” says Hermes, adding that artificial insemination is not ruling out natural breeding but would be supportive to get a pregnancy at last. “I would suggest it is time to at least have a look at these animals if they are still OK from their reproductive status.”
Having lived in the zoo all their lives, the northern white rhinos held in Ol Pejeta are used to people. In Ol Pejeta it is possible to get (under the supervision of keepers) really close to them, and even to touch them if one is lucky enough. Due to the rhinos’ size it is still an adrenalin-fuelling experience for the humans, but Doyo the keeper is really good with them. “They are easier to handle now than when they were in the zoo,” says Batian Craig of Ol Pejeta.
“These would be the perfect conditions to improve the efforts of saving this subspecies from extinction,” says Hermes from IZW Berlin. “We had a few examples where young females were getting bred a dozen times without getting pregnant. We performed one artificial insemination which was not successful, but natural mating after this artificial insemination was producing a viable pregnancy.”
Artificial insemination, however, wouldn’t be easy in Kenyan conditions, an argument raised by critics of the trans-location. Had the animals been left in a European zoo, access to them and the ability to stimulate them would have been much easier. However, both scientists from IZW Berlin and staff at Ol Pejeta admit that it would still be possible to carry out artificial insemination in Kenya.
As the first step, the animals would have to be trained to stand within a barrier where they would accept collecting of blood samples or being examined by ultrasound. According to Schwarzenberger, the training would take about three months. Then the scientists would have to wait for the right moment for artificial insemination. It could take up to one year. Therefore Schwarzenberger proposes that before any attempt to artificially inseminate the females, proper examination of their reproductive organs would have to be done as well as examination of the males’ semen quality.
In case of a sudden death of such rare animals, scientists would undoubtedly like to keep parts of their bodies for further research. This applies especially to female ovaries which could be used after freezing for artificial insemination in laboratory conditions sometime in the future. But such a plan to freeze the germ cells doesn’t seem to exist in Ol Pejeta in the project’s current state.
Rhinos in the Wild
Surely the best solution would be to find northern white rhinos in the wild and get them together with those in Ol Pejeta. But many experts don’t believe there are any wild northern white rhinos left. Flora and Fauna International is trying to find them, without any significant results so far.
Kes Hillman Smith is the one person who still believes in the possible existence of wild northern white rhinos. For more than 20 years, she was leading the monitoring in the DR Congo Garamba National Park. She now lives in Nairobi’s suburbs, with giraffes walking behind her garden and warthogs digging the soil directly under her house’s terrace.
“Yes, I still believe that some northern white rhinos may exist in the wild,” she says. Smith refers to her experience when she developed a research team and monitored wildlife in Garamba. In the area affected by civil war, she and her colleagues managed to protect the northern white rhinos so effectively that their numbers, in the early 1980s as low as 15, doubled in the next eight years.
Despite the armed conflicts, they managed to keep the rhinos’ numbers at around 30 for another 10 years. In 2003, however, Muharaleen horsemen began to penetrate the park from the north. “In 14 months, 15 to 20 rhinos were killed, including all territorial males,” says Smith. In such a critical situation, the DRC’s national conservation organisation ICCN and the president and four vice-presidents of the DRC agreed to a proposal by donors, including the International Rhino Foundation, to move five northern white rhinos to a safer area, while continuing the conservation of Garamba.
Smith and veterinarian Pete Morkel chose Ol Pejeta as a place where they could be transported to, for temporary holding until they and their progeny could return to Garamba. Ideally, it was hoped that by increasing the gene pool with a few northern white rhinos from captivity, a secure back up breeding population would ensure the survival of the subspecies.
However, not everyone agreed with the move. After backstage politicking within Congo, the internet and other media were flooded by a disinformation campaign that marked the move of rhinos as “theft of national heritage”. In the face of forth-coming elections politicians reversed their decision and rhinos from Garamba were never moved. No rhinos have been seen in Garamba in recent years.
Smith is currently working on a book about Garamba. During more than 20 years in the field she has accumulated a huge amount of data and experience on behaviour, ecology and population dynamics of northern white rhinos. She has a record of 53 calves and their family lineages. She even holds detailed records on the social behaviour of the animals, including mating.
According to her, the proximity of territorial males and multiple females can help stimulate breeding and this could possibly be done with southern white males in adjacent enclosures to those of Suni and Súdán. „In this way there would be at least three males aware of each other and it could stimulate them,“ says Smith. „That would be simulating the same sort of situation as they got in the wild.“
Smith knows more about wild northern white rhinos than anyone else in the world. Living just a few hours drive from Ol Pejeta, she knows its rhinos well.
But neither Smith’s vast experience, nor her dedication to the conservation of northern white rhinos, was reason enough for the expert committee to invite her on board.
The Brunt of Responsibility
In view of the fact that the northern white rhinos are extremely rare animals, it is astonishing how many people who have unique knowledge about them haven’t participated in the project to save them.
In August 2012, the project also lost the support of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). Due to unethical behaviour regarding animal transports, the WAZA membership of the Dvůr Králové Zoo was terminated. “As the Dvůr Králové Zoo is not a WAZA member anymore, WAZA had to remove the project to save the northern white rhinos from its branded projects’ list,” says Carole Lecointre, a spokesperson for WAZA.
Přemysl Rabas, the new director of the Dvůr Králové Zoo who assumed office at the beginning of December, has to consider what to do with the project. It would probably help to open it to a wider group of experts.
But it will not be easy for him. So far, he has supported the decisions of the former director Dana Holečková and tried to discredit critical experts (although their criticism was partly justified) by saying that they just wanted to move the rhinos into a western European zoo. If the objective of the trans-location wasn’t just to take four animals to Africa and let them live on their home continent, something probably will have to change.
Judging from the improved health and overall well-being of the animals in Ol Pejeta, it can be implied that it would be actually very hard to find better conditions for their breeding than they have now. “We did well that we moved them,” says zoologist Hrubý. “I’m not sure about it regarding saving the subspecies, but I’m sure that for those four individuals life is definitely better now. Even if they were killed tomorrow by poachers.”
Staff at Ol Pejeta still hope the analysis of fecal samples denying pregnancy of the females is not reliable. “We will see in the coming months,” says Richard Vigne, director of Ol Pejeta. “But of course, nothing is certain until we have a calf on the ground.”
Even Vigne admits that something will have to change. “If nothing happens in the next six months, we will have to think about something different,” says Vigne. It seems that people in Ol Pejeta would prefer crossbreeding of northern white females with southern white males. According to them, however, some form of artificial insemination or stimulation can be considered too.
“Listen, all we want is to see one of these rhinos to have a baby. And the doors are open to whoever with whatever idea to give us a direction,” says Batian Craig from Ol Pejeta.
It will only be fine to see the same open approach on the side of the Dvůr Kralové Zoo. Although it will be the expert committee that will decide what to do next, it is still the Czech zoo that bears the brunt of responsibility.
All images in the slideshow by Jan Stejskal/ThinkBrigade.com.