By Daniela Lazarová
Zoos in a number of European countries burned rhino horns on Sunday on the eve of World Rhino Day, in order to highlight the plight of the endangered species. Dvůr Králové Zoo, which has for years spearheaded international efforts to save the northern white rhino from extinction was among them. I spoke to Jan Stejskal, in situ projects coordinator at Dvůr Králové Zoo, about the zoo’s conservation efforts and the chances of saving a species on the brink of extinction.
“We are actually involved in projects that are aimed at saving two very rare species of rhinos. One of them is the northern white rhino which is a subspecies of the white rhino. The subspecies lived only in central Africa and according to scientists this subspecies has such distinctive characteristics that they say it has differed from other subspecies for at least a million years. There are only seven specimens of this subspecies left in the world and there are none left in the wild. One is in the Dvůr Králové Zoo, two are in the San Diego Zoo in the US and four are held in a semi-wild environment in Kenya. They are not in their original habitat because there is no safe area in their original habitat any more. And those four that are now in the Ol Pejeta nature reserve in Kenya were transported there from the Dvůr Králové Zoo five years ago.” The Dvůr Králové Zoo is actually the only place in the world where the northern white rhino has bred in captivity. What is the secret to your success? How did you manage to get them to breed?
“It is hard to say what the secret is, but I would say that one of the reasons is that we have really experienced staff. Another reason is that not many northern white rhinos have lived in captivity. I would say that the total number of white rhinos to have ever lived in captivity would be below 30 specimens. So it may be this narrow pool that is behind why only the Dvůr Králové Zoo was successful in breeding northern white rhinos in captivity.”
When did you get your first northern white rhinos?
“It was in 1975 and it was done by the zoo’s then director Josef Wagner. He brought them from south Sudan. It was two males and four females and what is interesting is that none of these females got pregnant. Another female - from Knowsley Safari Park in the UK –had to be brought here a few years later and she was the female that started the captive population of northern white rhinos.”
So it is just a question of chance –of getting the right rhinos together…but then there was a lull, the last calf born in Dvůr Králové Zoo was born in the year 2,000 and you sent four northern white rhinos to Kenya in the hope that they would start breeding there. How successful did that prove? “Well, their health improved in Kenya and even the cycle of the females improved in the years that followed the translocation. Unfortunately, they have not been able to reproduce so far. That is why we decided that it would be good to check whether their reproductive organs are in good shape. We plan to visit them in December with a specialist from Berlin for a series of health checks. ”
If things do not look good - is it the end of the road for the northern white rhino? Are they on the point of extinction even now?
“It is hard to say, but some people would agree that this is the case, that the northern white rhino is practically extinct because the last remaining seven specimens will not be able to reproduce, that we are seeing the last specimens of a species that is actually behind the tipping point of extinction. However the artificial techniques of reproduction are now so advanced that we cling to the belief that there may still be a chance for this species. We are now pursuing those possibilities with the female Nabire who remains in the Dvůr Králové Zoo. She was not translocated to Kenya because she is no longer capable of breeding naturally. But it seems she has one healthy ovary and this could provide us with material from which to create an embryo in artificial conditions. This is something we would like to try and similar attempts could be made with the females which were transported to Kenya. In case they would not be able to reproduce naturally anymore then we would consider some kind of artificial reproduction.”
There has been talk of cross-breeding the northern white rhino with the southern white rhino in order to save the species. Is that underway or is it just being considered?
“It is underway. What we did is that when it became more and more obvious that the northern white rhinos were having serious problems reproducing and maintaining the purity of the species we decided to give a southern white bull access to northern white females. This happened on January 25th at the Ol Pejeta and we witnessed a few attempts at mating but unfortunately we still do not have the results of an analyses of their fasces samples. That is the only way we have of finding out whether the females are pregnant or not. To be honest at the moment I do not believe they are.” Who are you cooperating with in this effort?
“We cooperate with Ol Pejeta in Kenya – the institution that holds these four northern white rhinos. I probably should say these four northern white rhinos are the last of their kind that are theoretically still able to reproduce. The other animals –in San Diego Zoo and Dvůr Králové Zoo are not able to reproduce naturally. So we cooperate with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, we cooperate with its sister conservancy Lewa, we cooperate with Back to Africa, an organization that has very good veterinarians who specialize in translocations of rhinos and understand rhinos very well, we cooperate with the veterinary university in Vienna –this is where the analysis of fasces samples take place, and we cooperate with the Institute for Wildlife and Zoo Animals Research based in Berlin –the people in Berlin focus on artificial reproduction techniques in rhinos and elephants and other mammals.”
You say there are just four northern white rhinos that can reproduce, but time is running out, so how many reproductive years do they have? How much time does it give you? More....