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  SOS Rhino : In the News : News From The Field : 2004 Update on SOS Rhino at Sepilok Rhino Breeding Center
2004 Update on SOS Rhino at Sepilok Rhino Breeding Center

March 2004

In the following a short summary is given about the work conducted by SOS Rhino in Sepilok in the year 2004:

Dr. Petra Kretzschmar, the new science director and program co-ordinator for SOS Rhino, starts with the breeding project in Sepilok. She appoints two locals, Benzy and Justin to help her collecting the data. Her first project is to train the staff in behaviour observation, sample preservation, and handling of the rhinos.

Picture 9: Petra and Justin at the rhino visitor platform training behaviour observations of the rhinos.

The blood is being collected from the tail of the rhino. The animals are trained to walk into the chute, a cage-like enclosure, which can be closed and opened at each end. The chute permits easy access to the animal without risk for the researcher. Both Tanjung and Gelugob like to walk into the chute as they get bananas during sample collection.

Picture 10: Edwin conducting a palpation and ultrasound examination on Gelugob.

Dr. Edwin Bosi, the director of SOS Rhino in Borneo, visited Sepilok in March to conduct an ultrasound examination of the female reproductive track and to train Petra and her staff in sperm collection.

Picture 11: Silih, a rhino keeper from the Wildlife Department collecting blood from the tail.

April 2004

In April, the floor of the rhino enclosure needed to be improved. The rhinos are kept in a small area during the night and are released in a fenced rainforest habitat during the day. The floor of the night enclosure consisted of sand and couldn't be cleaned properly. To avoid the spread of diseases that could be fatal for the rhinos, it was decided to put concrete on the floor. A team of five people from the Tabin SOS Rhino staff was sent to Sepilok to help with the work on the rhino enclosure.

Picture 12: Tinju, Suzali and Franz, SOS Rhino staff from Tabin, are busy mixing the concrete.

Picture 13: The night enclosure with its new floor.

Datuk Chong Kah Kiat, the Chief Minister of Sabah and Minister of tourism, environment, science and technology was visiting Sepilok. He was interested to see the Centre, the orang-utans and the rhinos. Edwin and Petra briefed him about the rhino - breeding program in Sepilok and about the community outreach program in Tabin.

Picture 14: Edwin and Petra welcoming Datuk Chong Kah Kiat, Chief Minister of Sabah and Minister of tourism, environment, science and technology in front of the rhino enclosure.

Picture 15: Edwin is briefing Datuk Chong Kah Kiat, about the SOS Rhino projects. Dr. Sen, the veterinarian of the Wildlife Department (on the left) and officers from the Wildlife Department (on the right) were accompanying Datuk Chong Kah Kiat to the platform.

May 2004

Dr. Nan Schaffer was visiting Sepilok in April and May to conduct ultrasound analysis. She is an expert in this field and helped Petra to examine the genital organs of Gelugob and Tanjung.

Female Sumatran rhinos often develop tumours in the reproductive tract. These tumors are believed to develop through prolonged periods of cycling activity caused by the lack of breeding activity. In natural situations, pregnancy and lactation dominate the endocrine status and continuous cycling is a rare event. Non-reproducing female may have up to 310 estrous cycles. This results in a prolonged exposure to sex steroids, which can induce tumour development and asymmetric reproductive ageing. A similar pattern has been observed in humans and in domestic animals. The ultrasound analysis conducted by Dr. Nan revealed, that Gelugobīs reproductive track is still considerably healthy for her age. Luckily no major tumour could be found.

Picture 16: From the left: Dr. Rosa, Dr. Petra, Dr. Nan, and Benji conducting ultrasound analysis of Gelugob

May was also the months of the rhino challenge. The participants climbed Mount Kinabalu, cycled to the tip of Borneo and walked in the Tabin rainforest to search for footprints of the few remaining Sumatran rhinos. At the end of the trip, the participants came to Sepilok to see the Sumatran Rhino. They had the chance to watch Gelugob from a close distance in her night enclosure and they were able to observe Tanjung patrolling his territory in the outside enclosure. In the evening, Dr. Nan gave a presentation about SOS Rhino, while Petra informed them about the research conducted in Sepilok.

Picture 17: Dr. Nan and Petra together with the participants of the rhino challenge at the rhino visitor platform in Sepilok.

June 2004

Clare and Kate, two biologist from England were volunteering for SOS Rhino in Sepilok. They helped Petra developing new leaflets and an exhibition. The leaflets are written in English and in Malay and they inform tourists about the breeding project in Sepilok and about the work of SOS Rhino in Tabin. The exhibition is placed in the reception area in Sepilok and it informs tourist and tour guides about the latest projects of SOS Rhino.

Picture 18: Clare and Kate, SOS Rhino volunteers, Dr. Nan, Benji and Justin with Gelugob, the female Sumatran rhino in the background

A project was started in June in co-operation with ZoŽ Jewell and Sky Alibhai from Rhinowatch. ZoŽ and Sky developed a technique, which enabled them to identify individual black rhinos from their hind footprint. We hope that this technique can be applied in Tabin to establish the number of remaining rhinos. At the moment, only the approximate number of rhinos in Tabin is known. This is based on the number and position of footprints found along transects during our surveys. The new technique may help us to get a better estimate of the remaining rhinos, which is very important for the conservation of the species.

To develop the new technique, ZoŽ and Sky require up to ten digital pictures of the left hind foot of an individual. The computer program then generates measurements from given landmark points on the footprint and the differences between different footprints will be calculated using statistical analysis. To start the project it is necessary to have pictures of footprints of individually known animals. Therefore digital pictures of the left hind footprint from Tanjung and Gelugob were taken. We then require pictures of footprints of free ranging rhinos in Tabin. Our team in Tabin has already been equipped with two digital cameras sponsored by Kerry Crosby, participant of the SOS Rhino Challenge and Project Director of the Asian Rhino Project, and the first pictures from wild Sumatran rhino footprints have already been sent to Sky and ZoŽ.

Picture 19:Picture of footprint from Gelugob

July 2004

In July, Mr. Thierry Rommel, a representative of the European Union was visiting Sepilok and the rhinos.. He was very interested to learn from Petra about the biology of the Sumatran rhinos, the breeding project and the work of SOS Rhino in Tabin.

In July, Sue Prescott an artist from Australia helped Petra to develop a new SOS Rhino T-shirt. Sue spent time together with the rhinos in Sepilok to capture all their features in her drawing. The characteristics of Sumatran rhinos are their three toes, the skin folds, and the hook like lip and their hairs. All of these features are included in Sue's drawing of a mother and a baby Sumatran rhinos. The T-shirts are currently sold in Sepilok and some can also be ordered via the internet.

Picture 20: The SOS Rhino team in Tabin and a volunteer with the new SOS Rhino T-shirts at the base Tabin.

Petra, Benji and Justin went to Tabin to meet the SOS Rhino staff and to see the base camp in Tabin. Benji and Justin live in a village close to Sepilok. They have never been to Tabin before. The visit gave them the chance to see the natural habitat of Sumatran rhinos and to learn about the other projects of SOS Rhino. A party was held in at the base camp, with a barbecue and singing until late in the night, to give them a warm welcome.

Picture 21: Petra, Benji, Bendis and Justin at the new rhino statue in front of the Lahad Datu airport

Picture 22: Party in Tabin

August 2004

August 2004 was a very busy month. Our new SOS Rhino staff from Tabin came to Sepilok to learn about the Sumatran rhino and at the same time a group of 20 students from the Outbound School in England came to work in the rhino enclosure.

The new staff, Rajimah, Marniah, Bendis and Husrin are locals from a village called Dagat, which is situated at the lower Segama River in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. They are very experienced in fishing and they know how to survive in the rainforest, but they have not seen a Sumatran rhino yet. They came to Sepilok to study the behavior of the rhinos, to learn how to identify natural marks left by the animals and how to differentiate between the different footprints.

Picture 23: Rajimah and Bendis looking at a tree that is frequently used as a rubbing post by the rhinos in Sepilok

Picture 24: Marniah and Rajimah standing next to a tree with a freshly eaten tip

They also learned were to look for hair samples of rhinos. Hair samples are often found close to a mud hole at trees used as rubbing post or inside a mud hole. These hair samples can be used for genetic analysis to identify individual rhinos, if the hair bulk is not missing.

Picture 25: A fresh bite mark

The new SOS Rhino staff also helped to build the new fence in the rhino enclosure together with the team from the Outbound School. The fence connecting Tanjung and Gelugobīs enclosure needed to be repaired as Tanjung always tried to brake through the fence when Gelugob was in estrous. The fence needed to be improved In order to prevent fighting between the rhinos.

Picture 26: The supervisor of OBS and his team, the SOS rhino staff and staff from the Wildlife Department are busy building the fence

September 2004

All the faecal samples collected so far were sent to Assistent Prof. Dr. Franz Schwarzenberger from the Department of Natural Sciences at the Veterinarian Medicine University in Austria. He and his staff are specialized in fecal hormone analysis. The results received from him in September were very exciting. The fecal hormone concentrations reveal that Gelugob is cycling. The fecal progesterone and estrogen metabolite concentrations peaked, and the peak estrogen concentrations partly correlated with the behavior of Tanjung and Gelugob.

Peak oestrogen levels indicate the period of time in which the female is most receptive to breeding with a male. This period is called estrous. It is typically 3 - 6 days long with 1 day of standing estrous, when the female will allow the male to mount. The fact that Gelugob is cycling is good news as we have already expected that she is not cycling at all. Unfortunately, her cycling activity is not regular. A trend, which can often be observed in older female rhinos A normal oestrous cycle of Sumatran rhinos is usually 21 - 25 days long. Gelugob has some longer time intervals between peak estrogen concentrations and also some longer periods of estrous. However, it is likely that her cycling activity will become more regular with regular introductions of the male and female. The fact that the behavior of Tanjug and Gelugob correlates with peak estrogen concentrations will make the decision about the right time of mating for us more easy.

October 2004

In October the prince of West Malaysia (Dymm Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra Ibni Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Jamalullail Pemangku Raja Perlis, name of the Prince including his titles) and the princess (Dytm Tuanku Lailatul Shahreen Akashah Raja Puan Muda Perlis) visit Sepilok.

Picture 27: The prince and princess of West Malaysia (green uniform) welcomed by volunteers from the Orang Utan Appeal and Petra (in the back).

November 2004

Dr. Nan Schaffer visited Sepilok again in November. She conducted several rectal ultrasound analyses on Gelugob and found no new tumour.

Tom Frazier a friend of Petra donated a photo trap camera called Racktracker. It is a digital camera in a waterproofed case. It takes pictures of an animal that walks in a distance of about 5 meters from the camera. We had several problems with camera traps before. Very often, the camera got wet, the film was not transported, the cable was chewed on, or the camera was knocked down by elephants. The Racktracker is a new camera so we had to test it in Sepilok before we could use it in the field. The camera was mounted on a tree in the large enclosure. Tanjung walked by several times so that we were expecting to get nice close up pictures of Tanjung. To our surprise none of the pictures showed Tanjung on it. The problem was that we mounted the camera too high. The next day we tried again but again no pictures of Tanjung. It took us several days and lot of frustration until we figured out how to get good pictures.

Picture 28: Tanjung passing by in front of the photo trap camera (black box mounted on the tree).

Picture 29: One of the hundreds of pictures taken by the Racktracker without a rhino on it

The problem with digital cameras is that it takes a while until it can take a picture. It only works if the animal stands in front of the camera for 5 seconds. So the Racktracker can only be used at a water hole, salt lick, etc. It is also important to check that the camera is always shaded as direct sunlight makes it impossible to see an animal on the picture. The most important part is to mount the camera very close to the ground, which is a problem as the rhinos may rub against the tree and may brake the camera. Luckily Tanjung did not damage the Racktracker and we are now testing it in Tabin. Our aim is to identify individuals from pictures of rhinos visiting the mud-holes in Tabin.

December 2004

December is the month of the rainy season. We have got a lot of rain every day. The rhino platform is closed most of the time and the rhinos are kept in the night enclosures to prevent any accidents due to heavy rain. Regardless of the wheather, the sample collection and behaviour observation is carried on. In this month, the SOS Rhino team gets support by a new volunteer, called Maddie. She previously volunteered for the Orang Utan Appeal in Sepilok. She enjoyed her time in Sepilok so much that she decided to join SOS Rhino afterwards and to stay in Sepilok for another two months. Her job is to give talks to the visitor in the video room before showing a 5 minutes video about the work of SOS rhino. She is selling t-shirts at the rhino platform and therefore makes a big contribution to SOS Rhino. Thanks a lot Maddie !

Part 1 of this story available here.

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