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SOS Rhino : In the News : SARS renews threat to rhinos

SARS renews threat to rhinos


May 16, 2003
Denver, Colorado

Experts here to discuss ways to save endangered species
By Diedtra Henderson, Denver Post Science Writer

A pinch of rhino horn cures the congestion and fever that accompanies SARS, at least one doctor in China is saying. That advice to a panic-stricken populace has raised worries about renewed rhinoceros poaching in the few regions where the lumbering creatures still exist. Post / Glen Martin

Mighty rhinos ranged the globe for some 50 million years, but in recent decades their numbers have dropped perilously. Experts who analyze their health, diet and even their libido converge today on Denver to exchange knowledge that might reverse the rhinos' sprint toward extinction.

SARS is simply the latest challenge.

Dan Cao, a program officer with the World Wildlife Fund, focuses on endangered species among the 5,000 animals whose pelts, bones, shells and organs are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhino horns are thought to cure lung ailments, coughing and high fever.

A research institute based in Beijing interviewed traditional Chinese medical practitioners in provinces where SARS raged for their thoughts on treating the sometimes-fatal respiratory ailment. One doctor's precise recipe included rhino horn among the combination of medicinal plants to be boiled and drunk like soup.

" Obviously, these doctors know nothing about endangered species issues," Cao said. "If even one of them mentions (rhino horn), it's going to be a problem."

Rhinos have no natural predator. A lion or a tiger might snag a calf if a mother were inattentive. "But they never leave them alone," said Lynn Kramer, vice president for biological programs at the Denver Zoo, who will give today's introductory remarks.

Fewer than 20,000 rhinos exist in the wild and in captivity in Africa and Asia. They've been hunted for their horn, also thought to be an aphrodisiac, and flushed from their natural habitats by war, fires and overcrowding.

" They're disappearing for several reasons," Kramer said. "One of them is because of the economic recession and political unrest in those parts of the world makes it difficult to get the funding to provide them with adequate parks and habitat."

Zoos have had mixed results in increasing rhino numbers in captivity.

The Denver Zoo has had 14 births since 1966 with four different breeding pairs of black rhinos, Kramer said. "The end result is our deaths have pretty much equaled our births in captivity. They've had a number of medical problems. ... It's been tough to produce and maintain as many rhinos as we'd like."

Comparing their internal organs, rhinos are pretty similar to horses. But zoos haven't had the same success in assisted reproduction with rhinos that's been seen in the horse world.

In theory, semen could be collected, but it would mean immobilizing the massive beast and using a pulse of electricity or manual stimulation to coax it free. That danger past, females throw in their own challenge: They have a "tortuous" cervix that makes artificial insemination tricky, Kramer said.

So, most zoo breeding has been done naturally.

The Cincinnati Zoo recently boasted a first: The first Sumatran rhino bred and born in captivity since 1889. The bouncing 72-pounder gained 900 pounds in his first year.

That he was born at all is thanks to bribing his mother, Emi, with a basket of bananas and apples to allow her blood to be drawn. Using hormone analysis and ultrasound, the zoo determined when she would be most receptive to Ipuh's sexual advances.

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