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SOS Rhino : In the News : Close encounters of the rhinoceros turd kind

Close encounters of the rhinoceros turd kind

  30 May 2004

Volker Grun's thesis project is crap - but reeks of sex appeal.

The University of Canterbury student is embarking on a world-first study of white rhinoceros poo and its smell's effect on behaviour.

His horny study is the butt of many jokes but it is deadly serious - it aims to boost the endangered species' captive breeding rate, which hovers at a low 8 per cent worldwide.

In coming weeks, Grun will shovel 60-80kg of fresh rhinoceros dung from Christchurch's Orana Wildlife Park and Hamilton and Auckland zoos. Once cleared by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's quarantine requirements, the football-sized turds will be swapped between different rhino enclosures in Christchurch and Hamilton.

White rhinoceros, like many other animals, defecate to mark their territory. But Grun hopes to prove the smelly deposits have other uses.

The basic idea is an outsider male rhino's turd will trick unsuspecting bulls into thinking a challenger has strayed on to their turf. Its testosterone-charged aroma should stir their primal urges and prompt a frenzy of territory marking, exciting female rhinos' sexual desires. Well, put them on heat anyway.

"They might start thinking 'Oh, this male isn't so boring after all'. The whole idea is to get rhino babies," Grun says.

Some of the poo will be sent to his home country, Germany, for nutrition analysis, and hormone studies will be done in a Christchurch laboratory to determine the key scent.

"It's kind of like a detective story."

He will monitor the rhinos' reaction to the foreign poo over many weeks and hopes his theory leads to a cheaper way to lift breeding rates internationally. Moving poo from zoo to zoo is far less costly than the bulky animals - an average male tips the scales at two tonne and transport costs match their size.

Grun, 30, expects to complete his Masters in zoology next year. He admits New Zealand seems an odd choice to study white rhinoceros - 90% of which live in South Africa.

However, he says New Zealand zoos are not overcrowded and have a similar climate to Europe and parts of South Africa - the white rhinoceros' natural habitat.

In total, 12 white rhinoceros live here - five in Christchurch, four in Hamilton and three in Auckland. Worldwide, only 8440 are left in the wild.

Orana Wildlife Park is also home to New Zealand's first rhino born in captivity. Four-and-a-half-year-old Ibutho is moving to a zoo in South Australia next week as part of the species' management.

Orana Wildlife Park chief executive Lynn Anderson is excited by the study. "One of the big issues is lack of breeding of captive-born rhinos. This is definitely a new angle of looking at the problem," she says.

"If a lot is learned from this project, it will be of use to the entire world."

Grun will also observe female rhinos' reactions to the foreign poo to see if they seem more interested in mating with that male. Female faeces will also be swapped from different zoos' enclosures to test reactions.

"At the moment, we don't know who gets along with whom. Maybe a female is really attracted to one male from another zoo rather than the male in her enclosure. It might be worth trading these two males to get her breeding."

Kind of a dating agency for rhinos, really.

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