Edited from The New York Times, April 8, 2020 By Annie Roth
Threatened and endangered animals are becoming casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rhino 911 is a nonprofit organization that provides emergency helicopter transport for rhinoceroses. Since South Africa announced a national lockdown on March 23, Rhino 911 has had to respond to a rhino poaching incident nearly every single day.
In neighboring Botswana, at least six rhinos have been poached since the country closed its borders.
These recent incidents are unusual because they occurred in tourism hot spots that, until now, were considered relatively safe havens for wildlife. South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, and Kenya rely on tourism to fund wildlife conservation, but thanks to border closures and crackdowns on international travel, foreigners can’t visit national parks or conservancies.
This shines a light on the fact that Africa’s wild animals are not just protected by rangers, they’re also protected by the presence of tourists.
Poachers have normally avoided places where there are lots of tourists, but now they are feeling free to move into locations they’ve previously avoided.
Besides empty parks, no tourists means no money. National lockdowns have severely constricted Africa’s $39 billion tourism industry, which funds wildlife conservation all across the continent.
Without revenue from tourism, many parks, private reserves and community conservancies are finding it difficult to pay employees. Paid protection has dwindled. Rangers and private game guards have found their jobs in jeopardy. Many are being laid off. Those that are still employed are working alone.
If the economic situation doesn’t improve, not only will the poaching of rhinoceros, elephants and other iconic animals escalate, but poaching for the purpose of obtaining bushmeat will increase as well.
In the hopes of alleviating the situation, the Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based environmental organization, recently began raising money for cash-strapped parks, conservancies and private reserves in Africa that need help paying rangers and guards.
In 2008, Africa’s Northern White Rhinos were considered extinct in the wild. In the years that followed, the situation got worse. But scientists had a plan.
PHASE 1: GATHER UP THOSE THAT REMAIN
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy, at the base of Mt. Kenya, houses the only 2 remaining Northern White Rhinos in the world: Fatu, 30, and her daughter Najin, 19.
They live there under 24-hour armed guard.
In 2009, they were moved to Ol Pejeta, along with two males, Suni and Sudan, from a zoo in the Czech Republic. Of the eight Northern Whites left in the world, these four rhinos were thought to be the most fertile.
The rhinos were packed in special wooden crates built to support their weight for the flight to Kenya.
But first they had to be crate trained so that they’d enter the crates on their own. Those of us with dogs know how easy that must have been!
The rhinos were moved to the conservancy in hopes that a natural environment would encourage them to mate and reproduce. They did mate. They did not reproduce.
It was discovered that neither of the females were able to carry a calf. Fatu has degenerative lesions in her uterus and Najin has weak hind legs which could cause complications if she became pregnant.
A final blow was delivered in 2018 when Sudan, the last remaining male, had to be euthanized.
While Sudan’s death was devastating, scientists were prepared. An international consortium of scientists and conservationists had been collecting and freezing semen from Northern White Rhino bulls for years.
At the same time, the team was devising an in vitro fertilization process for the endangered whites (where an egg and sperm are fertilized outside the body).
This was an amazing undertaking. Artificial insemination had successfully produced white rhino calves, but in vitro fertilization had never been completed with rhinos before.
PHASE TWO: HARVESTING THE EGGS
In August of last year, the team was able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes (immature eggs), five from Najin and five from Fatu. Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch. The cost in time and research was in the millions of euros.
The eggs, which cannot be frozen, were immediately flown to a laboratory in Italy to eventually be fertilized with the frozen sperm from four deceased males.
PHASE THREE: FERTILIZING EGGS
From the ten eggs, two embryos were created in September 2019, and the third was created in December. The embryos are being stored in liquid nitrogen, with conservationists planning to implant them in a southern white rhino surrogate mother in the future.
PHASE FOUR: SET THE STAGE FOR A ROMANTIC ENCOUNTER
One of the things the scientists are struggling to work out is the timing to implant the embryo. They need to know exactly when the female’s body is best ready for the embryo to attach to the uterus lining.
Scientists are hoping that the chances of the surrogate carrying the pregnancy through to birth may be increased if they implant the embryo right after she has mated.
This hunch has led them to set the scene for the next stage in their elaborate plan. Four wild female southern white rhinos have been enclosed with their offspring in their natural habitat.
The next step is to put a sterilized southern white rhino in with the females (would-be surrogates). As soon as they see the sterilized bull mounting, they dart the female, put the embryo in and hope for the best.
In the best case scenario, only a handful of calves may be born from Najin and Fatu’s eggs, and the lack of genetic diversity between the half-siblings could make it impossible to create a viable breeding population. To tackle that problem, stem cell research will have to be done, and that brings up the question of medical ethics. Nothing is easy about this entire operation.
If all this work miraculously produces babies, the first northern white rhino to be born should be named Lazarus.
Rhinoceroses are large herbivorous animals identified by their characteristic horned snouts.
They have been living on Earth for nearly 12 million years. Although they were probably a lot woollier back then.
There are five species of rhino. Two species, the Black Rhino and the White Rhino, are native to Africa.
There is actually very little color difference between black rhinos and white rhinos. They are both dark grey in color. The color of both species can vary greatly depending on local soil conditions, as all rhinos tend to roll about in the dust and mud.
Rhinos like to wallow in mud in order to create a protective layer on their sensitive skin. This prevents sunburn and insect bites, and helps to keep them cool.
The white rhino is the larger of the two African species. They can grow to 6 feet in height and weigh more than 5,000 lbs. Appropriately, a group of rhinos is called a crash.
Typically, rhinos live in crashes of 3 – 10, relying on each other for protection. Black rhinos are solitary animals and must take responsibility for their own well-being. They tend to be the more aggressive of the two species.
African rhinos only have hair on their ears, tail tips and eyelashes.
Rhinos have three toes, making their closest relatives tapirs, zebras and horses. They have poor eyesight, but a heightened sense of smell and an excellent sense of hearing.
While out on safari, one of the ways to distinguish between the black rhino and the white rhino is by looking at the animal’s top lip.
A black rhino has a specialized (prehensile) upper lip that is capable of grasping and browsing.
A browser is a herbivore that specializes in eating leaves, fruits of high-growing woody plants, soft shoots and shrubs. A browser doesnot feed on grass or other low growing vegetation.)
The white rhino has a wide, flat upper lip that’s perfect for grazing. (A grazer is a herbivore that feeds on plants such as grass and other low-lying vegetation. You know, they graze just like cows and sheep.)
Both species have two horns which are made of tightly woven filaments of keratin, not bone. Keratin is a protein found in human hair, fingernails and animal hooves. The horns are not attached to its skull.
The longest horn on record belonged to a white rhino and measured just under five feet.
Rhinos need to drink once a day, so they stay within 5 km of water. In very dry conditions, they can dig for water using their forefeet.
Rhinos have been hunted nearly to extinction. Their horns are sometimes sold as trophies or decorations, but more often they are ground up and used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Remarkable recoveries have been seen over the past ten years for several species, including the black rhino in Africa but poaching remains the largest threat. Until just months ago, only two Northern White Rhino remained in the world.
It was nice to receive something other than a Coronavirus Alert in my inbox this morning.
Why is this rhino hanging upside down?
David Chancellor found out while photographing a wildlife veterinarian receiving a black rhino from a hovering helicopter in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
“Rhinos will suffocate if their body weight is supported on their chests, such as in a body harness, and this would also result in undue pressure being placed on their hearts and associated organs,” Chancellor says. “So despite appearances, this is medically preferable—to support them by the legs for short distances.” Obviously, it’s best not to move the rhinos at all, unless their habitat has become unsafe. Sadly, Chancellor says, “to preserve these extraordinary creatures, intervention is often unavoidable.”
These guys are at the top of every visitor’s Must-see Safari List. Travel books will tell you when and where to find them, and why these five animals carry the Big Five moniker.
Hippos aren’t on the list, and they’re bigger than the lions and leopards who are listed.
Giraffes, the tallest animals in the world, aren’t included either.
The large Kudu Antelope was snubbed as well.
So what gives?
The term “Big Five” was coined by game hunters in the late 1800s. It refers to Africa’s five most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Nowadays the term is used by safari guides and game reserves, both public and private, to entice visitors to use their facilities. “Come visit our reserve and you will see all five of Africa’s most touted mammals. Prepare to be awestruck”
Want to be able to list the names of The Big Five in rapid fire order? Just think of that recently knighted zoologist and endangered species specialist, Sir Carl L.
C – cape buffalo A – African elephant R – rhinoceros L – lion L – leopard
We’ll begin to examine one or two of The Big Five in later posts.