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SOS Rhino : In the News : The horniest challenge on earth: impregnating an irate white rhino

The horniest challenge on earth: impregnating an irate white rhino


Hannah Cleaver in Berlin
Sunday March 30, 2003
The Observer

Short-sighted and easily annoyed, weighing up to 1.5 tons, standing some 6ft high at the shoulder and, putting it kindly, intellectually challenged, the rhino is not an easy patient.

There can be few animals more intimidating to a conservationist intending to perform artificial insemination than this crumble-skinned beast - and until now it has been technically impossible.

But an international group of scientists working in Berlin have developed a new tool to make it happen. Made of flexible carbon fibre, this simple device may now save the white rhino from extinction.

Dr Thomas Hildebrandt of the Berlin Institute for Zoo and Wild Animal Research and his colleague, Dr Robert Hermes, are waiting with baited breath to find out whether a southern white rhino they inseminated at Budapest zoo has become pregnant.

Success will also offer hope to the far rarer northern white rhinos - which are officially listed as critically endangered.

'There are about 30 northern whites in the wild, in Garamba national park in Congo, and then there are about 10 in captivity, although that includes only one potentially fertile female,' said Hermes.

The southern variant has achieved a remarkable comeback. From a wild population hunted down to about 100, there are now about 10,000 in the wild and hundreds in captivity.

They could be drafted into the campaign to save their northern brethren by acting as surrogate mothers to test-tube embryos of northern whites.

One of the most difficult things about inseminating rhinos is their internal physical characteristics, including a 1.5-metre reproductive tract. 'The male normally mates for about an hour, which is very impressive, particularly when compared to the elephant, which lasts about 40 seconds,' Hildebrandt said.

Handling such animals is dangerous, so some zoos have started training programmes to make things safer for the vets, while removing the need to anaesthetise the animals for every examination - ultrasound scans are necessary to pinpoint the fertile phase of the rhino.

Hildebrandt said: 'We have also been working intensively with Disney [the Animal Kingdom park in Florida], Salzburg and San Diego in training the rhino to accept the scanning techniques. Disney is the world leader in this. It is very useful as it avoids too many anaesthetics. It takes about three months.

'Rhinos are very stupid in my personal view. Elephants are very smart but rhinos solve all their problems with violence. You have to take very small steps to train a rhino but they can become tolerant of the scanning procedure.'

Despite such unflattering characteristics, the Berlin scientists are firm fans. 'When you see a newborn rhino, it is one of the cutest things. They are very sweet, even sweeter than elephant babies,' Hildebrandt said.

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