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SOS Rhino : In the News: : Articles : Rhinos: Ghosts of our Future

  On the island of Borneo at the edge of a remote jungle forest, Dr. Nan Schaffer is thoughtfully studying an ultrasonic image. Her subject is a 20 year-old female Sumatran rhinoceros. She's looking for clues, any information that will help her understand how to save a species of animal she describes as docile and romantic, a species which the rest of the world simply calls endangered. No one has seen a live baby Sumatran rhino for more than 12 years.

The Sumatran is one of the five species of rhinos remaining on earthó it is estimated that a scant 300 of the Sumatran rhino survive. Javan rhinos number even fewer: a ghostly 70. Though there are more of the white (6500), black (2500) and Indian (1900) rhinos, each breed is considered endangered and appears on the Red List published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

These frighteningly small numbers are the result of poaching, which has decimated the herds by as much as 80 to 95 percent, as is the case with black rhinos. The reasons for rhino killings are as old as pain, vanity and greed. Rhino horn is valued at US$30,000 per pound (0.5 kg). Prized for medicinal and ornamental purposes, the horn is nothing), more than keratin and hair. It is not an aphrodisiac, as many believe. But dispelling the myths does not seem to help the rhinos. In fact, Schaffer believes only one strategy can help themóproactive intervention by humans. We must work fast and effectively to save the rhinos in their habitat. Humans have been their exterminator, and humans must be responsible for their survival. "The rhinoceros is an ancient beast. They have been on this earth for more than 40 million years, yet their extinction may occur in my lifetime," Schaffer says.

In many ways, Schaffer's career has paralleled the actual and philosophical development of zoos. In the 1970s and 1980s, zoos were viewed by some as "arks". They dedicated themselves to saving the world's animal wealth. Through exhibiting animals to the public, zoos could raise awareness and gain monetary support for vanishing animals. Zoologists established breeding programs to maintain and increase numbers of endangered animals in captivity. They endeavored to keep the animals as wild as possible so they could be reintroduced to their habitats. To realize this goal, however, would require vast amounts of information.

Researchers concentrated on numerous areas of interest, including intensive study of animal behavior, dietary requirements and habitat conditions that would optimize healthy births. Genetic material such as sperm was being collected, analyzed and cryopreserved. The concept of the "frozen zoo" became popular. Schaffer had her first experiences with this type of work in her final year at veterinary school. She collected and studied the semen of gorillas at several zoos which were having difficulty in reproducing.

With the new information gained, the results of her efforts foreshadowed other discoveries. Schaffer observed in the male gorilla that, similar to humans, high numbers of sperm abnormalities were common. Some of these individual male gorillas needed access to highly fertile females to be productive, but the cause of the males' problems remained unknown. Research efforts produced a great deal of new information, but such discoveries were just pieces of an enormous time-consuming puzzle. New information might be gathered at great cost, often without tactical reproductive solutions to show for it.

The era also offered Schaffer some life-changing opportunities, including the chance to befriend Rudy. In an effort to preserve the genetic material of their Indian rhino, the Milwaukee County Zoo in 1982 invited Schaffer to work with Rudy. "He didn't have a mate," Schaffer explains. "His feet were bad and they didn't think he'd be able to breed. They expected me to walk right into the cage and get semen from him to preserve it." This was not an unusual request for Schaffer, since she had been exposed to the practical aspects of animal breeding at home on a Texas dairy farm. She had, however, previously witnessed the rambunctious, sometimes violent breeding display of the rhinoceros during her fellowship at the Bronx Zoo. The idea of intentionally exciting a 3000-pound (1360 kg) rhino made working with Rudy a perilous prospect.

"Rudy was big for his species," Schaffer recalls. "I peeked through a small opening in his cage - all I could see was this massive animal. There was no way I would get in this animal's cage. But they said that he was quite agreeable and cooperative. And he really did let me come right into the cage."

Week after week, Schaffer visited Rudy, manually collecting seminal fluid, which, unfortunately, was clear. "He was very patient with the various techniques we tried on him, but he just couldn't comprehend what all the fuss was about." Schaffer spent more than 18 months visiting Rudy weekly, before collecting a windfall of preservable material. "Billions and billions of sperm. It was a highly concentrated sample. From then on, he regularly produced preservable samples. It was like a light finally went on. He was completely conditioned. "

Many samples from Rudy were cryopreserved before he finally succumbed to his physical ailments. These samples appeared viable for artificial insemination, but practically no information was available on female anatomy or physiology. As for many species, the lack of information about rhinos was a significant obstacle to their preservation in captivity.

Understanding reproduction in the female rhinoceros became Schaffer's challenge in the early 1990s. Bibi, an older female rhino at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, would be the subject. Bibi was a black rhino that had given birth to healthy offspring twice in her earlier years. But by the age of 31, she had spontaneously aborted her last three pregnancies. Clearly, Bibi could become pregnant, but it was Schaffer's challenge to help her to carry to full term and deliver a healthy calf.

Schaffer designed and used a restraining chute for Bibi. With rectal ultrasound examination, she determined that Bibi's reproductive anatomy was normal. Other factors were presumably involved. Over the next year, Bibi's health needs were carefully observed and responded to, including bad teeth, an abscessed toe, occasional vaginal infections, and ulcerated skin sores. "The zoo's vet, Bill Bryant, treated all of her symptoms as necessary," Schaffer recalls. ëWe ground her food, rubbed oil on her skin and treated her toe. We started supplementing her diet with oral progesterone (the hormone responsible for maintaining pregnancy), and we gave her molasses twice a day to raise her glucose levels. Through this intensive management, she finally maintained her pregnancy." On 16 August 1993, Bibi delivered a male calf in excellent health. Schaffer takes pride in her part of the work. "I have helped to bring at least one rhino into the world," she says. The zoo staff chose to name the newborn Rudy, short for Ruwdesia in Swahili.

Schaffer and the progressive group of professionals with whom she has worked have made great strides in gathering valuable information about rhino reproduction. She has come very close to a successful rhino impregnation through artificial insemination, and continues to work towards this goal. But at the rate at which rhinos are diminishing from the Earth, Schaffer's joy over past successes is tempered. "We must now broaden our approach. We don't have enough of everything we need to preserve the rhinos principally in captivity. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough space."

Captivity supports field efforts with information and provides a separate gene pool, she explains, as she stresses the importance of allowing the rhinos to live and breed where they do these things best - in the wild. "Rhinos have the best chance for reproducing in their natural habitats." It's a straightforward conclusion. However, it's also a very complicated endeavor. Political and socio-economic factors, including land overuse, are just a few of the issues that add to Schaffer's concern for the rhinos' future. "Several countries have had their populations of rhinos exterminated with the outbreak of civil war. Rhino horn is a lucrative incentive for poachers. This factor increases the cost of preserving this species many-fold."

That's one of the reasons Schaffer began laying the groundwork in 1983 for a philanthropic rhino support network. During her work with the Rhino Reproductive Program at the Milwaukee Zoo, Schaffer envisaged an awareness program that could deliver this message of need. She wanted to give the rhinos a voice. SOS Rhino, a non-profit organization, was officially established in 1997. Its activities include raising funds to support rhino conservation and research, and partnerships with other organizations, such as the Black Rhino Foundation, to further the causes of all breeds of rhinos. SOS Rhino participated in the Rockin' for Rhinos concert tour.

"The support for these animals is a very worthy cause," Schaffer says, "but the lack of general awareness is sobering. Most people aren't even clear on what a rhino is. They're often confused with the hippo. We have a lot of work to do."

Schaffer believes sanctuaries and nature preserves are an important part of the overall conservation effort. By saving a rhino in its natural habitat all the associated flora and fauna are saved as well, she explains. As a large, charismatic animal, the rhino acts as an ambassador for its ecosystem.

One way to support this ecosystem is through ecotourism, a form of tourism that helps support ecology, and has helped some animals in Africa by raising awareness and securing funds through safari trips. SOS Rhino is supporting sanctuaries in Africa, India and SouthEast Asia. They have supported sanctuaries in Malaysia and Indonesia for the Sumatran rhino. "Visitors will be able to see the natural habitat of the Sumatran rhino and have a chance to see one of the most elusive animals on Earth," Schaffer says. "Sumatran rhinos usually die when placed in a zoo environment and have never bred successfully in captivity. The sanctuary may be our only chance of experiencing this amazing creature. Ultimately, the goal is to help bring these unusual rhinos, which have hair and can climb rocky terrain, back from the edge of extinction."

Schaffer's current work at the sanctuary involves ultrasonographic analysis of female reproduction. Intensive studies of the Sumatran rhino are revealing a distinctly different reproductive physiology from other rhinos. Researchers hope to be able to help optimize the conditions for pregnancy to occur.

For Nan Schaffer, baby Sumatran rhinos born in the wild would be the culmination of work well done.

"I have spent 18 years doing this," she declares. "I don't have another 18 years. Neither do the rhinos."

Next :: Page 2 of "Rhinos: Ghosts of our Future"


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