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SOS Rhino : In the News : Divided over breeding plan

Divided over breeding plan

The Star Online
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The recent deaths of all five rhinoceroses in a Malaysian wildlife sanctuary have raised questions: Should we continue keeping rhinos in captivity or are they better off in the wild? And should we abandon captive breeding programmes which have yet to produce results and accept the fact that Man just cannot tinker with rhino reproduction?

IN 1987, animals at the Malacca Zoo began to drop dead. Elephants, horses, gaurs and even one Sumatran rhinoceros were among the animals that succumbed to an unknown infection, later traced to salmonella bacteria in water from a lake.

Fortunately, quick-thinking wildlife experts had immediately isolated the zooÍs remaining six rhinos by moving them to the Sungai Dusun Wildlife Reserve in Hulu Selangor, thus preventing the animals from contracting the infection.

The same rhinos, however, were not so lucky when a bout of bacterial infection hit three weeks ago at the wildlife reserve, which now houses the Sungai Dusun Rhinoceros Conservation Centre. The infection killed all five of the centre's rhino population. A female, Seputih, was the first to go, on Oct 29. Ara, a male, died over a week later on Nov 9 and the next day, a female, Panjang. Two other females, Minah and Mas Merah, hung on for a week following medical treatment but eventually succumbed to the mysterious infection over the past two days. The latest deaths bring to seven the number of rhino mortalities at the centre within a two-year span. In January last year, Shah died of renal failure. This year in April, Rima died of natural causes.

The losses have dealt a harsh blow to efforts to breed one of the worldÍs most endangered species. Of the more than 30 species that once existed, only five survive today: the Indian, Sumatran and Javan rhinos of Asia and the black and white rhinos of Africa. All are threatened with extinction because of loss of habitat and poaching. Hunters covet their horns, believed to have medicinal use.

The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the most vulnerable to extinction, classified as a "critically endangered" species by the IUCN-World Conservation Union (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). Once spread over the foothills of the Himalayas down through Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, its numbers have plummeted as human population soared. Fewer than 300 are left today, mainly in pockets of forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Only 70 wild individuals are believed to remain in Peninsular Malaysian forests, mostly in Taman Negara. Sabah is believed to host between 30 and 50 individuals of the Bornean sub-species (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni).

Preventable loss?

Inevitably, the rhino deaths have raised questions and criticisms over management of the breeding centre under the Malaysian Rhino Foundation (MRF, a rhino conservation body) and the National Parks and Wildlife Protection Department (Perhilitan).

"If one animal died of infection, it is fine. But not a string of deaths, particularly over the past two years," laments one wildlife veterinarian. He questions whether there were good husbandry and hygiene practices at the 11-year-old centre. "Basic steps such as placing foot baths outside the paddocks, making sure food is clean and tested regularly, and monitoring the animals for signs of illness should help check spread of infections among captive animals."

Now, rats and cockroaches do enter the rhinos' night stalls and monkeys come in to steal food. These pests are known to carry bacteria. In the past, three black rhinos in the Denver Zoo in United States died of salmonella infection carried by geckos.

One wildlife manager says the animals at Sungai Dusun looked unhealthy when he visited the centre earlier this year. He has also heard of instances when the animals were fed with mouldy pellets, he says.

A nagging thought is whether Ara, Panjang, Minah and Mas Merah could have been saved since they became ill more than a week after Seputih died. "What steps were taken after the first rhino died to prevent infecting the rest?" asks Dr Dionysius Sharma, wildlife scientist of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Resident veterinarian of the breeding centre Dr Aidi Mohamad, who is employed by the MRF, admits he did not expect the other rhinos to be infected because the post-mortem on Seputih suspected her to have died of torsion of the intestines (twisted intestines) or colitis (damage to the intestines), not something infectious. Thus, the other rhinos were not isolated or given treatment following SeputihÍs death. It was only when Ara became ill and displayed breathing difficulties that all the animals were given antibiotics and supplements.

Veterinarians now blamed the deaths on septicaemia, a condition where bacteria invades and poisons body organs and blood systems. They still do not know which bacteria is the culprit. Only when the bacteria is isolated from the animal organs can its origins be determined. Samples of soil, water, food and pests found at the centre, such as rats and cockroaches, are being screened.

Aidi asserts that maintaining hygiene was a routine at the centre. He said the feed, which includes fruits and leaves, are stored in special areas and washed before being fed to the rhinos. Which is why he suspects that Seputih had contracted the culprit bacteria in the wild, possibly from other animals.

Being the most fertile female at the centre, Seputih roamed in a 4ha forested enclosure and was brought into the paddock only for mating.

Better off in the wild?

The sad event has triggered a rethink on keeping Sumatran rhinos in captivity, most of which have not fared well in such an environment. Of the 42 rhinos kept in zoos and sanctuaries since the 1980s for breeding projects, only eight are left today. There are four in the United States (one was captive-bred) and two each in Sabah and Indonesia. All the rhinos at Sungai Dusun were captured between 1986 and 1988, except for Ara, which was trapped in 1994.

And, should we abandon the breeding programme that has yet to produce a baby rhino?

"We cannot give up," asserts Mohd Khan Momin Khan, chairman of the MRF. "If we donÍt do anything, the Sumatran rhinos will disappear like the Javan rhinos which went extinct in Malaysia in 1932. WeÍve also spent so much time, effort and money. This tragic event should strengthen our resolve. We know captive breeding is possible from the success of the Cincinnati Zoo (which produced the world's first captive born rhino in 2001 and the female has conceived again)."

Mohd Khan, a former Perhilitan director-general, says the Endau-Rompin Park (which straddles the states of Pahang and Johor) used to host between 15 and 20 rhinos 20 years ago but is now left with only two. "With hundreds of kilometres between them, there is no chance for the rhinos to meet and mate. They stand a better chance in a breeding centre."

Perhilitan director-general Datuk Musa Nordin also defends captive breeding as the best way to preserve the species. He says in situ conservation (protecting rhinos in their original habitat), though crucial, has been an uphill battle what with loss of wild habitat and animal poaching. The department nabbed 39 Thai poachers over the past two years in Taman Negara and this year alone, 14 local poachers.

To keep the breeding programme going, however, wild rhinos will certainly have to be trapped.

Musa assures that Perhilitan will only trap "doomed" rhinos Æ those which have lost their habitat to development, risk being trapped by poachers, or solitary animals that have no chance to mate. "We have studied the pros and cons and see this as the best thing for these animals."

A veterinarian familiar with rhino research, however, cautions that Perhilitan must thoroughly survey the site before any captures. "You do not want to remove the only male or female in the wild population. If the area has a good, healthy population, it is better to leave them in their natural environment and protect the area."

Unsuccessful mating

The dismal result thus far also explains the lack of enthusiasm over captive breeding. Indeed, rhino reproduction has baffled wildlife experts. Even the female rhino in Cincinnati Zoo, Emi, miscarried five times before finally carrying a calf to full term. It was the first captive-birth in 112 years, a result of better understanding of rhino reproduction.

Wildlife managers now analyse progesterone levels in the blood of the female to determine if they are in oestrus. If the timing is wrong, the animals when put together will attack each other instead of mate. The same technique is used in Sungai Dusun. It raised the frequency of matings but not conceptions. Seputih conceived once but miscarried. Mohd Khan believes the success of the Cincinnati Zoo breeding programme was just pure luck. ñThey used the same technique as us and just after seven copulations, the rhino was impregnated.î

The other reason is that the Cincinnati Zoo has a young, healthy female. All the females in Sungai Dusun, on the other hand, have growths in their reproductive tracts, a malady which afflicts captive animals that have not bred for long periods. Both captive rhinos and elephants suffer from such growths which, among other things, prevent fertilisation of eggs.

Seputih has had plenty of tumours removed when she was alive and yet the post mortem found over 40 growths in her while Mas Merah had one the size of a golf ball. It is feared that the need for young and healthy animals will prompt Perhilitan to conduct more trappings in the wild.

Due to the vagaries of captive breeding, one veterinarian believes that resources used to run the Sungai Dusun centre - some RM150,000 annually - could be better spent on protecting and policing rhino habitats, as well as creating more protected areas.

WWF's Dionysius supports captive breeding but stresses that scientists still do not fully understand the science of rhino reproduction. Thus he cautions that captive breeding should not be at the expense of protecting the species in the wild. "We still need a two-prong strategy. Captive breeding should not take away the objective of protecting rhinos in the wild through efforts such as stepping up enforcement against poachers and addressing issues causing their decline." He also fears that if new captures are sent to Sungai Dusun, would they be subjected to similar risks of bacterial infection?

With such divided views, there does not appear to be a straight answer as to how best to save the species from extinction.

There is agreement, however, that lessons must be learnt from the rhino deaths. One lesson, says a veterinarian of a local zoo, is to avoid housing all the animals in one centre as infections can then spread easily. In fact, this is one reason why the endangered seladang are segregated into three breeding centres in the country. For the Sumatran rhino, however, Malacca Zoo is the only other facility with a captive animal.

An early post-mortem is vital, asserts Aidi in hindsight. "Seputih's post mortem was done a day later so we did not get good samples of her organs which would otherwise have indicated bacterial infection." Another veterinarian calls for improved management of captive centres, including stringent checks of water and contracted food items.

Mohd Khan says the breeding programme should be reviewed for improvements. "One option is to build a new and better breeding facility that is free of pests."

More importantly, there must be a thorough and independent investigation into the string of rhino deaths. Otherwise, caging endangered species in the name of conservation will instead only subject them to further perils.

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