The great rhino U-turn

The Cincinnati effect

Cincinnati Zoo, the second-oldest in the country, sits smack-dab in the city among the rolling hills surrounding the Ohio River. Generally considered one of the world’s top zoos, it has a long history of breakthrough captive-breeding successes, from giraffes to trumpeter swans to bison.

But perhaps none of the zoo’s past glories could compete with the birth of Andalas.

In many ways, Tom Foose, conservation coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the driving force behind the 1984 meeting to launch the captive-breeding program, had a point about why U.S. and U.K. zoos should have a crack at breeding Sumatran rhinos: the world’s best zoos had both the expertise and the technology to have the best chance of success.

“That’s what I love about the Sumatran rhino story because it’s a perfect example of how zoos can contribute,” Roth says. And Cincinnati was even more distinct than many zoos. Not only did it have a long history of captive breeding and expertise, but it also had an entire research facility, CREW, devoted to this kind of work.

“We often have a discussion here at CREW about the disconnect between the reproductive sciences and conservation. There is so much power in that kind of technology, but it’s used so little in real conservation efforts,” Roth says.

Andalas, the first Sumatran rhino bred and born in captivity in over a century. Photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo.

At the same time, Cincinnati Zoo, and the zoo community in general, suffered relentless criticism over the program.

“We felt it constantly. Partly because westerners, partly because zoo, probably partly because female,” Roth says.

Maruska says they took “a lot of fire” even from the wider zoo community. They were accused of taking wild animals out of their habitat just to exhibit them; they were told they’d never succeed.

“We faced the same with the California condor,” Maruska says. “We had people from the Audubon Society saying, ‘Let the birds die in dignity.’ Well, there is no dignity in extinction. Come on.”

Roth remembers that the zoo was even accused of making up pregnancies during the period when Emi was losing one after another.

“And then the negative stuff about, ‘They’re losing pregnancies, they must be doing something wrong there. Cincinnati is a bad environment,’” she says. “But we just kept at it. I just kept our eyes on the goal, and this is what we need to accomplish.”

Roth and the Cincinnati team may be the single most important reason for the eventual success. Roth was able to make astoundingly difficult decisions and then, perhaps even more importantly, stay the course when the criticism became overwhelming.

“Terri was the person that really did the job,” Maruska says.

It just took them — and everyone, in fact — much longer to produce calves than anyone could have expected at the 1984 meeting.

“Hell, I think we did a yeoman’s job with a handful of animals,” Maruska says. “I believe that if we had our full complement of animals, we’d [have] been a lot farther than we are today. I really do.”

The next step for Roth, however, was proving that Andalas wasn’t a fluke, and that Emi and Ipuh could replicate their little miracle.

In this 2017 image, Zulfi Arsan, head veterinarian at Indonesia’s Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, hand feeds US-born rhino Andalas. Photo by Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.

Fast forwarding

In 2004, Emi gave birth to her second calf, Suci. Then, in 2007, she gave birth to her third, Harapan. She successfully carried both these calves without the use of synthetic hormones.

“People thought it was really risky, but I really wanted to prove that they could do this themselves in a managed breeding program,” Roth says. Still, she believes the progesterone was vital for that first pregnancy in getting Emi over the “hump.”

“Once they’re producing, just keep them producing because everything is healthy, and everything is working right, you don’t want to stop that,” she says.

Unfortunately, Emi died in 2009 of iron storage disease, though at the time the team had no idea what was wrong. It’s an “insidious” disease, according to Roth, that can only be diagnosed after death.

In 2013, the zoo decided to euthanize Ipuh. Suffering from cancer, Ipuh had stopped eating and was barely able to walk.

Detail of Ipuh, whose taxidermed remains are currently housed at the University of Cincinnati. Photo by Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.

“It’s hard to describe when they were born, it’s even harder to describe when an animal passes away,” says Reinhart, who spent 22 years caring for Ipuh. “[He] contributed so much to the species and the knowledge and the propagation of these animals and he stayed with us to the very end.” Today, his preserved body rests at the University of Cincinnati.

An even bigger heartbreak came a little over a year later when Suci, Emi and Ipuh’s daughter, died from iron storage disease, the same sickness that took her mother.

With Suci, we suspected it when she started showing the same symptoms that Emi did,” Roth says. For a while, Suci, just 9 years old, improved with aggressive treatment, but a few months later her health worsened. “Her liver was just too damaged,” Roth says.

She believes iron storage disease was an issue at Cincinnati because the rainforest rhinos have evolved to live with multitudes of parasites and biting insects that constantly drain them of blood.

“They’re trying to absorb as much iron as they can from what little iron they get on their diets because they have this constant load of parasites. They’re bleeding, and they’re having to build up tissues that parasites have chewed down, so they need it all the time,” she says. “We bring them into our zoos or our facilities and we get rid of all the parasites, and they don’t have that outlet anymore, so they’re not losing iron anymore.”

By the time of Suci’s death, the Sumatran rhino program had shifted significantly. During the period when Cincinnati Zoo was struggling to produce just one calf, many experts began to feel the best thing for the species would be to bring them into managed sanctuaries in their local environment. This way, the rhinos would have direct access to their wild, natural foods and, many experts believed, this might help induce mating and decrease the chance of disease.

Harapan, born at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, now lives at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park in Lampung, Indonesia. Photo by Rahmadi Rahmad/Mongabay-Indonesia.

In 1998, Indonesia opened the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) deep in Way Kambas National Park, a park also home to some of the last wild Sumatran rhinos on Earth. Two females were brought from zoos in Indonesia that year, as was Torgamba, all the way from the U.K. Unfortunately, breeding between these pairs was never successful.

Still, by the late 1990s, the SRS and the Sungai Dusun rhino center in Malaysia — where six rhinos would die in 2003 — were beginning to be seen as the future of the program.

In 2007, the U.S. sent Andalas, the first calf born in captivity, thousands of miles to the SRS in the hope that he could find an unrelated mate. It was time for the Cincinnati staff to transfer what they learned overseas.

“We really work hard here, that whatever we develop here it’s not about ‘mine, mine, mine,’” Roth says. “That’s why I was just so pleased that they were able to do it in Indonesia.”

Andalas mated successfully with Ratu, a wild rhino found roaming near a village in 2005 and brought to the SRS for her safety. Their union produced Andatu, a male, in 2012, and Delilah, a female, in 2016.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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