There are fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinoceroses left, making them the most endangered animal on the planet. This smallest member of the rhino species has two horns (coveted for use in traditional Asian medicine) and brown fur and is closely related to the wooly rhinoceros that went extinct thousands of years ago.
The Sumatran rhino could soon face the same fate. For this reason, the Cincinnati Zoo is planning to take the drastic step of mating Suci, a 9-year-old rhino, with her brother, 6-year-old Harapan.
Dr. Terri Roth, the director of the zoo’s Linder Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), acknowledges that mating sibling rhinos poses numerous risks. But there are simply not enough Sumatran rhinos left. “We are down to the last male and female Sumatran rhino on the continent, and I am not willing to sit idle and watch the last of a species go extinct,” says Roth in US News.
Suci and Harapan were both born at the Cincinnati Zoo as was their older brother, Andalas, the first Sumatran rhino calf born in captivity. Their parents, Emi and Ipuh, had been rescued from southwest Sumatra.
Andalas was born in 2001 and moved to the Los Angeles Zoo when he was two, as his mother, Emi, had conceived again. He was then shipped to Indonesia’s Sumatra Rhino Sanctuary in 2007. After a period of adjustment — Andalas was initially scared of the other rhinos and did not know how to wallow in mud holes, one of wild Sumatran rhinos’ favorite things to do — he became the father to a son, Andatu, last summer.
Harapan also has had a bit of an odyssey since he was born in Cincinnati in 2007. He has been spent the past few years elsewhere in the U.S., at the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida and then at the Los Angeles Zoo, all organizations that have joined together to try to save the Sumatran rhino.
Noting that inbreeding rhinos is hardly ideal, Jeff Holland, a mammal curator at the Los Angeles Zoo, also says that there is ”resistance from the Indonesian government in helping capture the rhinos” to diversify the gene pool of captive rhinos. Unless this is varied, the U.S.’s captive breeding program could, despite the many efforts of conservationists, be in trouble.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s plan to try to mate Suci and Harapan is not the first time that scientists have resorted to inbreeding to save species whose numbers are greatly threatened. Conservationists have also resorted to inbreeding white and black rhinoceroses. As one 2007 study reports, inbreeding raises the chance of animals dying when they are young as well as the chance of birth defects, as shown by one black rhinoceros who was reportedly born without one ear.
Even in the wild, the population of Sumatran rhinos may be so small that sibling rhinos may be breeding in forests, as Roth also points out in Scientific American.
The rhinos’ native forests are being rapidly cleared for the sake of economic development. While the Indonesias government has instituted policies regulating the clearing of the forests, illegal logging and mismanagement have meant that the Sumatran rhino’s habitat — and that of thousands of other species of wildlife and plants — is on track to disappear entirely. We must put a halt to the rampant deforestation and development in fragile ecosystems like Indonesia’s, even as scientists do all they can to save the Sumatran rhino, an animal that links us to the earth’s prehistoric past.
Photo from Thinkstock
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