the meeting that changed everything for Sumatran rhinos

  • A 1984 agreement between zoos, conservationists and government officials marked the formal beginning of an international program that brought 40 Sumatran rhinos into captivity in an attempt to ward off extinction. Within 11 years, the program collapsed.
  • The program was long viewed as an epic failure due to high mortality rates and the lack of live births for over a decade; it also paved the way for later breeding successes that just may offer the Sumatran rhino hope for the future.
  • As conservationists mull a new plan to capture more rhinos, what lessons do past efforts offer?

This is the first article in our four-part series “The Rhino Debacle.”

It’s hardly the most likely place to meet a Sumatran rhino. But as you enter Zimmer Hall at Cincinnati University, deep in the heart of the Midwestern United States, there he is: Ipuh. A one-ton, taxidermed behemoth, a prehistoric relic who only passed away in 2013.

In life — well, really in death — he resembles a purple-hued, thick-skinned antediluvian hog: his horns have been shaved off; his thick, reddish fringe hair is nowhere to be seen. His expression could be called somber, even grim. But I’ve been fortunate to have met enough Sumatran rhinos in my life to know they are actually gentle, joyful, singing creatures. So I try not to take him too seriously as he rests between the vending machines and lounges for students.

Ipuh is not exactly famous. But he probably should be: Ipuh is the first Sumatran rhino bull to sire a calf in captivity in 112 years.

Born in the wilds of Sumatra, Ipuh is to-date the most prolific male breeder of his species in captivity. His taxidermed remains now reside at Cincinnati University. Image by Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.

The calf, a male named Andalas, was born in 2001, the direct and long-awaited result of a historic meeting 17 years earlier in Singapore. The meeting launched a global captive-breeding program for the species — a program that would meet with tragic failure and much folly until, finally, the first taste of success in Andalas. Four more calves have been born since.

But it’s a program with which conservationists are still struggling to reconcile: was it a poor strategy that ended in total failure, or has it given us a second chance to save the species?

Today, the Sumatran rhino is arguably the rarest large terrestrial mammal on the planet. Officially, experts say around 100 animals survive in the wild, but unofficially the number could be as low as 30. We have an additional nine rhinos in captivity, but only two of those have been proven to breed: a female named Ratu, and Andalas — yes, that first son of Ipuh and Emi, his wild-born bride.

Now, conservationists are mulling a new capture program to add new rhinos to the small pool of captive rhinos in a last-ditch effort to ensure the species survives the Anthropocene.

The 1984 Meeting

A 39-year-old Tom Foose, conservation coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), arrived in Singapore in October 1984 with a bold new plan to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction. He’d already laid the groundwork with Sabah, one of Malaysia’s Bornean states, for a proposal to catch several Sumatran rhino pairs and split them between local facilities and several U.S. zoos, which would be footing the bill.

Now he just needed to convince a group of rhino experts and conservationists, brought together by the Asian Rhino Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), that this was the best way forward.

“He’s really nerdy. He’s unfit, short-sighted, addicted to Coca-Cola, not a field person at all,” said John Payne, at the time a project manager for WWF-Malaysia and a representative of the Sabah Forestry Department. “He’s really the brains. He realized somehow … that the Sumatran rhino was going to go extinct. And the reason was that there were too few and they weren’t breeding. It was very clear to him then. So, he got a bee in his bonnet, right?”

An ocean away, someone else appears to have been harassed by the same bee. John Aspinall, an eccentric zoo owner from the U.K. who’d made his fortune as a bookie for the British upper class, had hatched a similar plan to capture wild rhinos and split them between the host country and the financier — in this case, Indonesia and Aspinall’s zoos in the U.K., respectively.

“Several of the personalities in human history were misunderstood, criticized or even condemned at first, to recognize only much later their geniality. I would place the conservationist John Aspinall among them,” Francesco Nardelli, the executive director of the Sumatran Rhino Project, said of the man he worked with for 12 years. “A man of substance.”

Nico Van Strien, Tom Foose, Mohammed Khan bin Momin Khan and Ed Maruska, then the director of the Cincinnati Zoo, at a 2001 event celebrating Andalas, the first rhino born as a result of the captive breeding program. Image courtesy of Terri Roth.

There was also Nico Van Strien, just 38 and already the undisputed expert on all things Sumatran rhino. He’d just published a landmark 211-page dissertation on Sumatran rhino behavior and ecology — though, given his subject’s timidity, he’d never actually seen a wild one. Despite this, at the time, van Strien could be described as the only living academic expert on wild Sumatran rhinos.

Van Strien touched down with his latest estimates of how many animals were left across dozens of potential populations. Already, the species was one of the most endangered large mammals on Earth. It was believed to be extinct from most of its range, from northeastern India to Vietnam, only surviving in Sumatra, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula, though a few were thought to still linger in Thailand and Myanmar.

Van Strien’s 1984 figures put the population at somewhere between 481 and 873 (in 1986, the IUCN would estimate between 425 and 800 were left). But many of his numbers are just educated guesses. In several places, van Strien noted, the numbers were unknown or else based on “unconfirmed reports” or “tracks.” In all likelihood, the real numbers were probably closer to van Strien’s low estimate, and maybe even considerably below that. Many of the large populations he cited either vanished in the next decades or were never there in such numbers to begin with. Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra, for example, was supposed to have 250 to 500 animals; officials announced the rhino extinct there just 20 years later.

The meeting also included several heads of U.S. zoos keen on the project, as well as a number of government officials from Malaysia and Indonesia. Of the 23 attendees, only two were women. Eight of the attendees were non-westerners from Southeast Asia, representing Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, where the meeting was held.

The meeting, described in its summary report as the “Ad Hoc Sumatran Rhino Meeting,” would forever change the previously haphazard nature of Sumatran rhino capture and captivity. And it would kick-start a program that would go down, for a long time, as a total and absolute failure, a conservation debacle of epic proportions: A catastrophe that would take decades to produce something real, but now requires a second look.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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