Richard Collins says first newborn in 14 years had a textbook delivery
After an absence of 14 years, a baby rhinoceros has been born in Dublin Zoo. The herd there has five adults, two males and three females. Last year, a pair were seen mating. However, it's not easy to tell if a rhino is pregnant; you can’t just hand the animal a bottle and ask for a urine sample. Its dung has to be tested for traces of hormones produced during pregnancy.
But Helen Clarke and her team had a further problem; how to tell which animal produced a particular piece of dung. Like all vegetarians, a rhino generates lots of waste but this soon becomes mixed with that of its companions. You could follow an animal around with a shovel to get a ‘clean’ sample but that’s hardly a practical proposition — dung tests have to be carried out at least once a week for up to three months. A who’s who of rhino droppings was needed if the team were to identify the zoo’s expectant mother.
The answer to the problem was an elegant one. Flecks of coloured glitter, the shiny tinsel used in Christmas decorations, is sometimes mixed into food left out for animals such as badgers. The glitter, found later in the droppings, enables a map of the creature’s home range to be drawn. This idea, apparently, came from the burial customs of an African tribe. When a person died, the body would be exposed for animals to consume. The cadaver would be decorated with necklaces and bracelets of coloured beads and, in due course, these turned up wherever scavengers, which had fed on the body, wandered. Could colouring the food help with the rhinos?
When the zoo’s females were offered food containing glitter of different colours, one of them, Ashanti, was found to be pregnant. It was good news; Ashanti has an excellent pedigree with genes from the wild population. A rhino pregnancy may last for up to 18 months, but, at 9.30pm on the May 28, Ashanti went into labour. Rhinos don’t accept help when giving birth, so all the team could do was watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television, a nail-biting experience. The young mother dropped her baby and began licking it. The youngster, a female, was on its feet within 20 minutes. It fed, for the first time, shortly after five o’clock in the morning. It was a textbook delivery.
Dublin Zoo’s animals are white rhinos. The tanks of the animal kingdom, these armour-plated giants are the largest of the world’s five rhino species. Apart from elephants, they are the largest land animals on Earth. The name is misleading. It’s a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for wide; this grass feeder has a wide mouth. In the 19th century, the white rhino was hunted to the brink of extinction. Then, in 1895, a small population was discovered in Natal. Protection and careful management there nursed the species back from the verge. Between wild and zoo animals, there are now about 15,000 white rhinos world-wide. It’s the most numerous rhino species.
But there is another connection with rhinos; Dublin’s new Asian elephant facility is named after a famous Indian park, with which the Zoo has a special relationship. Kaziranga National Park in Assam is one of the last refuges of the critically endangered one-horned rhino. In 1904, there were only 200 Indian rhinos there but, thanks to protection and conservation measures, they now number 1,500. The world population is 2,700.
The Sumatran and Javan rhinos are rarer still. Persecuted for their body parts by the Chinese medicine trade, all of the Asian species have been driven to the brink of extinction.
The successful breeding of white rhinos in zoos has raised hopes that similar programmes could help the other rhino species.
Africa’s black rhino is a bush and shrub browser, with narrower lips and mouth than those of its white cousin. The black has bred in zoos but, according to Helen Clarke, infant survival has been very poor.
The reasons for this failure are not known. The Sumatran and Javan rhinos have bred in zoos but the future for all three Asian species remains uncertain.
However, research is continuing and, hopefully, ways will be found to nurture these extraordinary animals back from the abyss.
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