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Rhinos

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rhinos3.gif (123381 bytes)'If the rhino was clever enough to submit to man and do a job of work as acombined agricultural tractor and plough... there would be room for him. But he has a bad habit of charging blindly, so the only answer to him is a rifle-bullet.'

The quotation comes from a 1927 book, The Zoo Unbarred by L. G. Mainland of the London Daily Mail. Has any animal suffered as much from the pig-headed ignorance of humans as the poor rhinoceros? In the Far East, millions still believe that rhino horn possesses magical medicinal qualities, and in North Yemen a rhino horn handle for a young man's dagger is still supposed to enhance his virility. So rhinos are hunted to within a whisker of extinction, and all the programs to 'Save the Rhino' become no more than valiant attempts to hold back the tide.

Can zoos help at all? To answer this we should first define the problem. There are five living species of rhinoceros (mankind has already dispatched a European and a North American rhino).

White rhinos (the'white'comes from the Dutch word for 'wide', referring to their wide lips) are fairly common in zoos.  Whipsnade Zoo has a magnificent herd that breed quite frequently. And they mix well in ranging mixed species exhibits, like the spectacular one at Pretoria Zoo. They are a herd animal, and already owe their existence to conservation management. At the beginning of this century the southern race of the white rhino was down to a few dozen animals, all in the Umfolozi Valley of Natal. Thanks to careful protection the descendants of that group make up most of the white rhinos on earth. The exceptions are the dozen or so northern white rhinos, now closely guarded in reserves, who are all that remain from a population of a thousand or more less than twenty years ago.

rhinos4.gif (135995 bytes) Black rhinos (with narrow lips) are now far more threatened. Their population has fallen from twenty thousand to less than six thousand in a decade. They are solitary animals and have never bred particularly well in zoos. In fact their captive population has been slowly falling as their death rate has exceeded their birth rate. But research and careful management may halt this decline.

Great Indian rhinos, once common in northern India and Nepal, are now restricted to small populations in forest reserves. Their decline has been halted, and now like so many wild species their future depends upon continued political stability in their countries of origin. There are very few in European zoos.  Nevertheless the species seems to breed readily in captivity, and there is good reason to expect a safe reservoir population will become established in zoos.

Until very recently you would have had to explore the forests of Indonesia if you ever wished to see a woolly rhinoceros. There is a record of a female woolly (or 'Sumatran') rhino arriving in London Zoo in 1872 (she lived for thirty three more years); and a second was held at Calcutta Zoo in 1889. The only animal you could perhaps have seen since was a male who died at Copenhagen Zoo in 1972. With a world population numbered only in the hundreds, scattered in upland forests in Malaya, Thailand, Bomeo and Sumatra, this the smallest of the living rhinos has been little known, and rarely seen or photographed. But on Friday 24th May 1985 a historic agreement was signed in Jakarta by officials of John Aspinall's zoos (the Howletts and Port Lympne Foundation) and the Indonesian government, for a project to conserve the Sumatran rhino. The project centred around 'doomed' rhinos - animals in isolated forests due to be felled for agriculture. A grim fate normally awaits such animals, but Aspinall's plan was to capture all the doomed rhinos and place them in breeding colonies in Indonesia and in Britain. So it was that in April 1986 a young male woolly rhino, 'Torgamba', arrived at Port Lympne Zoo in Kent.  It is doubtful whether any zoo animal has ever been so cosseted. While a permanent twelve acre enclosure was being prepared, Torgamba, and a mate that arrived in August 1986, were kept at a private farm with their own heated swimming pools, luxurious mud baths, and sun ray lamps. They were fed upon three buckets of exotic fruits a day (flown in twice a week at a cost of 1,000 a time), and even their fresh hay was dipped in pineapple juice to make it more accept able. Branches were cut for them from a carefully tended, unsprayed woodland: deep wood-chippings were provided to mimic the forest floor, and the animals were watched and cared for twenty four hours a day. The rhinos became immediately tame, and greatly loved by their keepers. But Aspinall’s bold experiment was not to be a success. After several years, and considerable anguish, The Howletts and Port Lymnpe zoos made what must have been the most selfless decision ever made by a zoo. They chose to return the rhinos that had cost them millions back to a reserve in Indonesia. Torgamba is now back in Indonesia in semi captivity at Way Kamba National Park. If the rhinos there breed, and there is every chance that they will, then it will be a first for the species in any zoo, and may well herald a safer future for one of the world's most endangered mammals. You can still see Sumatran rhinos at the Bronx Zoo, and at San Diego Zoo. But the real future for this species looks to be in managed semi-captivity in Indonesia.

The fifth, and most endangered species of rhino is the Javan rhino. There are perhaps fifty surviving individuals in the Udjung-Kulon reserve in Java, and a smaller number in the Leuser reserve in Sumatra. There are no Javan rhinos in any of the world's zoos.

A controversy surrounds the recommendation of American zoologist, Dr Ulysses Seal, that twenty rhinos should be captured from Udjung-Kulon and brought into captivity. Seal argues that without captive management, there is only one direction that the Javan rhino population can go, and that is towards extinction. His critics counter, with some justification, that no one knows if the rhinos will breed in captivity, no one knows how to keep and manage them, and no one knows how to capture them in the first place. If zoos could fund a compromise project to capture a single pair and keep them locally to put these reservations to the test, then this might help support a decision in one direction or another. It might also demonstrate the good intentions of the zoos. The worst decision would be one made purely for political or financial reasons.

The cruel contrast between mankind's ignorant, systematic extermination of rhinos, and the gentle natureRhino Moving.gif (6060 bytes) of the animals themselves is very obvious when you see them well kept in a zoo. Zoo rhinos tend to become tame and affectionate. They will often allow visitors to reach across the barriers and scratch them, and they always develop a very close bond with their keepers. Rhinos, like gorillas, are misunderstood, gentle giants. If good zoos can help to save them, then they deserve our support.

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Last modified: July 29, 2005