Hannah Cleaver in Berlin
Sunday March 30, 2003
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
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,'