A herd of dead rhinos

Where Did it All Go Wrong?

By 1995, the captive-breeding rhino program looked doomed. Forty animals had been caught — 12 from Peninsular Malaysia, 10 from Sabah and 18 from Sumatra. And a shocking 19, nearly half, were dead. And this was before the disaster at Sungai Dusun.

Exacerbating this failure, the program hadn’t produced even a single calf 11 years after the landmark meeting in Singapore — even though the entire goal of the program ostensibly was to create baby rhinos. In 1993, the Sumatran Rhino Trust, once such a promising endeavor, went belly-up.

Not only did the program look doomed, it looked like a conservation embarrassment.

Payne says he believes the original sin of the captive-breeding program was its commitment to only taking animals out of populations that were already destined to vanish because of either too few rhinos or impending logging and agriculture. This, he says, was at once politically expedient and a good cover against critics who argued rhinos shouldn’t be removed from the wild. But it also meant conservationists were removing rhinos that were more likely to be old, genetically inbred, and hadn’t seen another living rhino in ages.

“It was a fateful flaw right from the beginning to only catch doomed rhinos because it was all the trash, old, [reproductively] unfit ones that were then going to be captured,” Payne says.

Puntung, pictured here with veterinarian Zainal Zainuddin shortly after her capture in 2011, was euthanized in 2017. Suffering from cancer, she was estimated to be around 25 when she died. Image courtesy of BORA.

Many of the females caught already had or quickly developed reproductive issues, including uterine tumors, likely due to going without breeding for so long. Rhinos, even in large protected areas, had simply become too few to find each other, according to Payne.

“People assume the rhinos know where each other are, and they’re humping each other. Of course they don’t … They just live out their life there … without ever breeding,” he says.

Over time such tumors made the females totally infertile. The males, meanwhile, may have arrived already aged, with low sperm counts.

“You can’t have a successful breeding program if you don’t have reproductively viable animals,” says the International Rhino Foundation’s Ellis, noting that when the SRS in Way Kambas started in 1996 it didn’t have any breeding success until 2005, when it got a young female, Ratu, from the wild.

A bridge and crate used to transfer captured Sumatran rhinos during the original program in 1984. Image courtesy of Francesco Nardelli.

Targeting such small populations for captive breeding also led to extreme gender imbalance in captivity. In Peninsular Malaysia, only two of the 11 adult rhinos caught were male. The situation was nearly the exact opposite in Sabah, where six males were caught (plus another two that died during the trapping), and only two females.

The trapping program in Sumatra was the only one that didn’t result in a gender imbalance: seven males to 10 females (not including one that died in the trap).

This gender imbalance was worsened by an unwillingness both to share the rhinos internationally or to combine subspecies. Had Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia been willing to mix their two different subspecies, they may have had more luck breeding, since Sabah had mostly males and Peninsular Malaysia mostly females.

Although the groups pledged cooperation and to do the best they could for the species, this didn’t always happen. For example, Malaysia, which had refused to send any rhinos to the U.K. or the U.S., sent one of its female rhinos as a gift to the king of Thailand in 1985. She died after one year, mateless, when she got caught in her fence at Bangkok’s Dusit Zoo and accidently strangled herself.  Sometimes, a single rhino would linger for years at a facility without a mate.

Melintang was captured in 1985 in Peninsular Malaysia. She was then sent to Thailand as a gift to the nation’s king. She died less than a year and a half after her capture due to unintentional strangulation in the fenced enclosure at Dusit Zoo. The bars were not the right width apart. Image by Mohammed Khan bin Momin Khan.

The decision by both Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia meant that zoos in the U.S. and U.K. had, at best, only a couple of rhinos to attempt any captive breeding.

“We didn’t have enough animals to work with. We had a small handful of them, but we had to learn all of this from these few animals,” says Maruska from Cincinnati Zoo, the first institution to actually achieve a birth. “If we could have had our full limit of the 25 animals, the program would have been … more apt to be successful.”

At the same time, feeding the animals the wrong food and trying to overcome disease meant many animals didn’t survive long. Erong, a male calf caught in Peninsular Malaysia in 1984, was an extreme example.

“Full cream milk was given by a ranger and he was told to stop it,” Khan says. “Erong was so young and could not digest the milk. I believe it was the cause of death … We looked and shudder[ed] in great fear as it died in front of us.”

Erong, a male calf caught in Sumatra was given full cream milk by a ranger. He died shortly after. Image by Mohammed Khan bin Momin Khan.

Much of this, of course, isn’t exactly shocking, given so little was known about this species in the wild. But the situation was exacerbated by what Payne calls “unhealthy competition” among institutions and an unwillingness to share information — a problem that some sources say continues to plague conservation efforts today.

Maruska also says they waited too long.

“It’s the same thing they did with the California condor, they wait till there’s a small number of animals and then it’s the last, last ditch attempt to [breed the species]. Instead of looking ahead.”

In 1995, at the height of the program’s problems, a new paper hit like a bomb. Alan Rabinowitz’s now classic “Helping a Species Go Extinct: the Sumatran Rhino in Borneo” eviscerated the decade-long strategy. A hugely respected conservationist, Rabinowitz, then with the Wildlife Conservation Society, harshly criticized the approach to Sumatran rhinos, which he wrote focused “time, money and effort” on captive-breeding efforts over protection in the wild.

“In Sabah, the easiest, most palatable, and most visible steps … were taken first,” he wrote. Habitat was only protected when it was “not controversial” and “caused minimal interference with ongoing logging activities and agricultural development plans.”

In the paper, Rabinowitz disputed the idea that many of the rhino populations were already doomed, calling such research “removed from the real world.” Instead, Rabinowitz said successfully protecting the species required tackling the threats of habitat destruction and poaching via more protected areas and more boots on the ground.

“The implication that captive breeding can save the Sumatran rhino makes the failure of in situ conservation less serious. This, in turn, helps create a self-fulfilling prophecy that wild [populations] have a low probability of survival,” he wrote.

Conservationists relied on makeshift bridges to capture rhinos in remote areas. Critics argue that more should have been done to protect these habitats. Image courtesy of Francesco Nardelli.

In the paper, Rabinowitz pointed out that by 1995 we still didn’t know how many rhinos were actually left — a fact still true more than 20 years later.

“While some of the blame … must be placed on the Indonesian and Malaysian governments, the rest of it falls squarely in the lap of international funding and conservation organizations,” Rabinowitz wrote, saying that NGOs had refrained from calling for anything difficult in order to avoid “becoming an unwelcome guest.”

Basically, conservation NGOs had bent over backward to agricultural and logging interests, a fact that still often proves true today.

In May this year, shortly before his death in August, Rabinowitz told Mongabay that his opinion of that early program hadn’t changed. However, he said what had changed was the situation today, both in terms of captive-breeding success and rhino populations on the ground.

In 1995, the last rhino for the captive-breeding program was caught in Sabah. His name was Malbumi. He would be dead in less than 18 months. The cause? Uncertain.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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