AboutZoos, Since 2008


Inbreed­ing Suma­tran rhi­nos at Cincin­nati Zoo as a last resort to avoid extinction

pub­lished 30 July 2013 | mod­i­fied 30 May 2014

“Hara­pan,” a six-​year-​old male Suma­tran rhino (Dicerorhi­nus suma­tren­sis) born at the Cincin­nati Zoo in 2007 and later moved to the White Oak Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter in Florida and then on to the Los Ange­les Zoo, returned home in July in an effort to help save his rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing species from extinc­tion. With no more than 100 Suma­tran rhi­nos left on the planet and only two on this con­ti­nent (Hara­pan and his sis­ter, nine-​year-​old “Suci”), this move demon­strates just how des­per­ate the effort to save this species has become.

Sumatran RhinocerosHara­pan is one of three Suma­tran rhi­nos suc­cess­fully born at the Cincin­nati Zoo since 2001. Sci­en­tists at the Zoo’s Lind­ner Cen­ter for Con­ser­va­tion & Research of Endan­gered Wildlife (CREW) are hop­ing they can work their magic once again with Hara­pan and Suci. Although the tenet at CREW is to max­imise genetic diver­sity and avoid inbreed­ing, in this case sci­en­tists are forced to make an excep­tion or watch the species dis­ap­pear altogether.

No one wants to breed sib­lings, it is some­thing we strive to avoid, but when a species drops below 100 indi­vid­u­als, pro­duc­ing more off­spring as quickly as pos­si­ble trumps con­cerns about genetic diversity.
Dr. Terri Roth, Vice Pres­i­dent of Con­ser­va­tion and Sci­ence, Direc­tor of CREW, Cincin­nati Zoo »

“We are down to the last male and female Suma­tran rhino on the con­ti­nent, and I am not will­ing to sit idle and watch the last of a species go extinct.”

In April 2013, a pdfSuma­tran Rhino Cri­sis Sum­mit was held in Sin­ga­pore with over 100 par­tic­i­pants from across the globe. The results of that con­fer­ence were cap­tured in a news release by IUCN. The most recent extremely low pop­u­la­tion esti­mate for this species was revealed and the news that there are approx­i­mately 100 indi­vid­ual ani­mals remain­ing in the world was a dev­as­tat­ing blow to an audi­ence that has spent much of their pro­fes­sional career work­ing to save the charis­matic species. The wild Suma­tran rhino pop­u­la­tion has decreased by >50% in the past decade and par­tic­i­pants realised there were now more sum­mit par­tic­i­pants than there are Suma­tran rhinos.

“What does it say about human­ity and what will we save if we can­not find a way to share the earth with such an ancient, peace­ful, non-​threatening species like the Suma­tran rhino,” said Roth. “The Suma­tran rhino is a for­est dwelling species and there­fore also plays an inte­gral role in main­tain­ing the for­est ecosys­tem. As a browser, it eats small saplings and brush allow­ing other young trees more room to grow and main­tain the for­est canopy. It acts as a seed dis­perser that stim­u­lates new growth in cleared areas and helps main­tain the diver­sity of indige­nous species through­out the for­est. Together, these activ­i­ties all help in main­tain­ing a healthy for­est which we know plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in absorb­ing CO2 from the atmos­phere and reduc­ing the impact of cli­mate change. So, if for no other rea­son, this is why the Mid­west­ern Amer­i­can farmer who is tired of droughts and tor­na­does and who is wor­ried about how next year’s crops will do and how the bills will get paid, should care about sav­ing the Suma­tran rhino.”

In addi­tion to their direct effort to pro­duce more Suma­tran rhino calves in cap­tiv­ity, the Cincin­nati and Los Ange­les Zoos are part­ner­ing with many inter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion organ­i­sa­tions includ­ing the Inter­na­tional Rhino Foun­da­tion, the Indone­sian Rhino Foun­da­tion, SOS Rhino and World Wildlife Fund to help pro­tect remain­ing wild pop­u­la­tions. The Suma­tran rhino is recog­nised as one of, if not the most endan­gered large mam­mal on the planet, and due to the recent surge in ille­gal poach­ing, encroach­ment which is caus­ing pop­u­la­tion frag­men­ta­tion, roads being built through habi­tats, and defor­esta­tion due to the palm oil indus­try, humans are dec­i­mat­ing them (and many other species, includ­ing tigers and orang­utans) faster than sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion­ists can make incre­men­tal progress towards sav­ing them. Its cur­rent sta­tus is Crit­i­cally Endan­gered accord­ing the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species.

Cur­rently, there is resis­tance at the gov­ern­ment level in Indone­sia to both cap­tur­ing addi­tional rhi­nos that are so des­per­ately needed to enhance the gene pool and exchang­ing rhi­nos for breed­ing so that inbreed­ing can be avoided. Fur­ther­more, the per­mit process put in place to pro­tect endan­gered species can be slow and cum­ber­some, often stalling out efforts among global part­ners to exchange gametes for assisted repro­duc­tion attempts. Finally, even though most con­ser­va­tion­ists now agree that cap­tive breed­ing must be a part of the Suma­tran rhino recov­ery effort, finan­cial sup­port for the pro­gramme is exceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to obtain. Most US fed­eral dol­lars for con­ser­va­tion are restricted and will not even be con­sid­ered for cap­tive breed­ing efforts. That being said, the cost of main­tain­ing Suma­tran rhi­nos is sig­nif­i­cant because their diet is com­plex, much like that of the giant panda’s, but donors flock to the pop­u­lar giant panda and remain rel­a­tively unaware of this unique rhino’s crit­i­cal situation.

“The cap­tive breed­ing pro­gramme in the US has been the most sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to the sur­vival of the Suma­tran rhino in recent years and in par­tic­u­lar the progress that the Cincin­nati Zoo has made in deter­min­ing the repro­duc­tive strat­egy of this species,” says Jeff Hol­land, Mam­mal Cura­tor, at the Los Ange­les Zoo. “With­out the work of the Cincin­nati Zoo we would not have had the suc­cess that we have seen. This is one rea­son why it is vitally impor­tant to main­tain a cap­tive pop­u­la­tion of Suma­tran rhi­nos in the US and sec­ondly to avoid hav­ing all the rhi­nos in one place where they are at risk of dis­ease, poach­ing and/​or nat­ural dis­as­ter that could poten­tially wipe out the entire cap­tive pop­u­la­tion in a sin­gle stroke. The idea of two cap­tive pop­u­la­tions lessens the risk of some­thing like this happening.”

Recently, the NGO SOS Rhino reached out to U.S. politi­cians in Wash­ing­ton D.C. In response, Sen­a­tor Sher­rod Brown, Sen­a­tor Rob Port­man and Con­gress­man Steve Chabot con­tacted key offi­cials in Indone­sia and the United States, includ­ing the Indone­sian Ambas­sador to the United States and Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry. Con­gress­man Chabot, as Chair­man of the House For­eign Affairs Sub­com­mit­tee on Asia and the Pacific, also sent a let­ter to the Indone­sian Pres­i­dent that was signed by most of the other Sub­com­mit­tee mem­bers. All of the global part­ners are now request­ing that national gov­ern­ment offi­cials step up.

“There needs to be seri­ous and imme­di­ate action that addresses exces­sive defor­esta­tion and poach­ing that is wip­ing out so many species in South­east Asia, espe­cially rhi­nos and tigers,” said Dr. Roth. “First and fore­most, we have to secure the few sur­viv­ing wild pop­u­la­tions. How­ever, the cap­tive breed­ing pro­gramme could also ben­e­fit if gov­ern­ments acknowl­edge the cri­sis and act accordingly.”

After years of research, CREW sci­en­tists at the Cincin­nati Zoo unrav­eled the mys­ter­ies of Suma­tran rhino repro­duc­tion and pro­duced the first cap­tive bred calf in 112 years on Sep­tem­ber 13, 2001. After that his­toric birth of the male calf “Andalas”, CREW sci­en­tists quickly repeated their suc­cess twice more, pro­duc­ing the female calf “Suci” and the male calf “Hara­pan” before the breed­ing pair passed away. For 11 years, the Cincin­nati Zoo held the dis­tinc­tion as the only place suc­cess­fully breed­ing this endan­gered species until the sum­mer of 2012 when the Cincin­nati and Los Ange­les Zoo’s Indone­sian part­ner, the Suma­tran Rhino Sanc­tu­ary in Way Kam­bas National Park, Indone­sia, pro­duced its first calf. The calf was sired by Andalas, who had been sent by the Los Ange­les Zoo and Inter­na­tional Rhino Foun­da­tion (IRF) to Suma­tra in 2007. Cincin­nati Zoo staff mem­bers have been work­ing with the Suma­tran Rhino Sanc­tu­ary staff for over a decade exchang­ing infor­ma­tion and trans­fer­ring the tech­nol­ogy devel­oped at the zoo that proved key to the suc­cess­ful breed­ing effort. The birth of Andalas’ first calf was a mon­u­men­tal global achieve­ment result­ing from col­lab­o­ra­tion among the Cincin­nati Zoo, Los Ange­les Zoo, IRF and the Indone­sian Rhino Foun­da­tion, wherein all par­ties acted in the best inter­est of the species.

“There is no way the Cincin­nati and Los Ange­les Zoos can save this species alone, but we can (and already have) con­tribute sig­nif­i­cantly and tan­gi­bly to the global effort,” says Dr. Roth. “It is crit­i­cal that in-​country pro­grams suc­ceed, which is why we sup­port them finan­cially, donate our ser­vices and send them rhi­nos pro­duced at our zoos when it is essen­tial to their suc­cess. But in return, the U.S. cap­tive breed­ing pro­gramme needs new genetic diver­sity to ensure it con­tin­ues to flour­ish, before it’s too late.”

(Source: Cincin­nati Zoo press release, 21.07.2013)

UN Biodiversity decade
WWF Stop Wildlife Crime
Fight for Flight campaign
End Ivory-funded Terrorism
Support Rewilding Europe
NASA State of Flux

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
Fol­low me on: