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Why Scientists Have Been Searching Zoos for Horny Rhinos

Why Scientists Have Been Searching Zoos for Horny Rhinos

Scientists are using hormone testing to discern which among our captive black rhinos are the most amorous. This isn’t voyeurism, though, but could help us as we help the species recover from near extinction.

In the wild, black rhinos are mainly found in what are known as grassland-forest transition zones but have habitats that range from the desert conditions of south-western Africa to the forests of Kenya. Despite some recent successes, black rhinos remain critically endangered, mainly due to the fact that they are mercilessly hunted for their famed double horns which are sold on the black market either as trophies or, in some areas, as items that can be used in folklore medicines.

Thanks to recent conservation efforts though, there are about 4,838 black rhinos in the wild (if we take into account all the subspecies). While that number might sound comfortable, it still makes the black rhinos vulnerable — and in particular to various genetic diseases that, with so few breeding pairs, can quickly leave them vulnerable to disease.

As such, conservationists have been trying to breed black rhinos from captive animals. This is problematic because black rhinos don’t breed particularly well in captivity. Now, though, scientists might have found a way to help with that problem.

Researchers from Chester Zoo in the UK, working alongside teams from the University of Manchester and the University of Liverpool, embarked on a six-year study encompassing 90 percent of Europe’s captive black rhino populations (which adds up to close to 10,000 individuals) so that the researchers could look at the mating patterns of the captive rhinos, as well as what their hormone profiles and other characteristics were like. What the researchers found, which is published this month in the journal General and Comparative Endocrinology, is illuminating.

Rhinos who mated regularly in captivity were more likely to display consistent hormone cycles. That’s not all that surprising, but what is interesting is that rhinos who had never bred before, whether in the wild or in captivity, were far more likely to have inconsistent hormone cycles. Furthermore, when the researchers looked at the behavioral traits of the rhinos, they also found that those with inconsistent hormone cycles were less likely to show that they were receptive to mating even when their bodies were biologically primed for it.

Lead researcher Dr. Katie Edwards explains why knowing the hormone profiles of captive rhinos can be useful:

“As well as non-breeding females not cycling as reliably, behavioral observations showed us these females don’t necessarily show when they are ready to mate, which can make managing breeding difficult. Hormone analysis helps address this problem by allowing us to predict when a female will be sexually receptive to a male, even if she doesn’t make it obvious.”

Further analysis showed some other important characteristics. For instance, breeding females tended to be lighter than those who, because of their irregular hormone cycles, didn’t breed. This suggests a dietary component that, perhaps if modified, could increase the chances of the female rhinos being receptive.

Dr Susanne Shultz, of the Faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester, oversaw the project. She believes that the research demonstrates how even small, seemingly insignificant details can add up to decreasing or increasing the chances of breeding successfully: “This research highlights how rhinos can behave in a different manner despite being kept in similar conditions. We think this demonstrates that it is important to recognize individual differences and adjust management plans accordingly to maximize the health and reproduction across all individuals in the population.”

Far from just being academic, this knowledge has a practical use. Chester Zoo has already applied this kind of research to its mating policy and has successfully bred three calves in the past three years. While we’ll need more data to know that this kind of hormone analysis is both cost and time effective, it does seem at least from a conservation standpoint that the research has real worth–and there’s no reason to think it need be confined to rhinos.

Other species that are incredibly difficult to breed in captivity, like the panda, may also benefit from this kind of non-invasive hormone profiling, and ultimately this technique could be good news for many of our endangered mammal species whom we may be able to bring back from the brink by encouraging genetic diversity through more carefully guided breeding programs.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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2:39AM PST on Nov 20, 2014

Yesterday there was a news item about a keeper injured by a rhino at a respected zoo.

I wouldn't know if the rhino was a part of this programme or not, but it underlines the fact that there is a huge risk in giving such a powerful animal reason for resentment.

11:56AM PST on Nov 18, 2014

I couldn't fit in what I thought about Henrik's angry outburst.

How do we know the rhinos feel violated? An animal who felt ravished would be depressed, sullen, and would hate and fear his captors, making him very difficult to handle.

Rhinos are capable of charging at the best of times. Have you ever been on foot in the same space as a rhino in the wild? I have, and to say I was totally terrified is an understatement! Now if the animal is in a confined space where he can't get away, and he is not only used to you but has utterly terrible memories of being misused, he is going to be extremely dangerous, to put it mildly.

While I wouldn't take liberties with a zoo rhino, they don't appear depressed. resentful, or utterly savage. In fact they don't show any signs of disliking people.

11:44AM PST on Nov 18, 2014

Henrik's comment needs investigation. Reading what Chester zoo has to say, I found this:
"Only around 750 Eastern Black Rhino survive in the wild. This is also the sub-species of Black Rhino that Chester Zoo is helping to conserve ex-situ, housing a breeding herd in a world-class facility and participating in the Black Rhinoceros European Endangered Species Programme. Chester Zoo staff also play an active role in field conservation providing technical support on a number of projects. By linking ex-situ activities and staff skills with major in-situ support the Black Rhino Conservation Programme strengthens and promotes conservation action both in the UK and Africa.

In 1999, in partnership with Save the Rhino International and the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), we supported the translocation of 20 Black Rhino to Tsavo East National Park, a large area of prime Black Rhino habitat where poaching had completely wiped out the native population. Subsequent, and continued support was then provided for ranger teams who risk their lives daily protecting the rhino against the threat of poachers. Support included fuel, vehicles, equipment and wages. This successful monitoring and protection has seen the Black Rhino population in Tsavo
East go from strength to strength."

Well, they aren't likely to publish information that isn't glowing, but this goes way beyond the negative C2 image of animal prisoners.

1:21PM PST on Nov 17, 2014

And thank you to Care2 for finally giving us a positive story about the work that responsible zoos do to encourage the breeding of species endangered in the wild. We need more of these stories (yes, they are out there if you look) then perhaps the negative attitude to zoos that is so common here will grow less.

1:17PM PST on Nov 17, 2014

Cathleen K expressed my feelings perfectly.

"Fascinating, and good news for successful management of captive breeding programs. And yes, they are necessary, since we can't wave a magic wand and undo the damage we've done to their wild counterparts. Until we can get a handle on poaching in Africa, those 10,000 rhinos are better off in Europe, and we should be damned grateful that they're there, because they'll provide the stock needed to repopulate the wild."

Yes, yes, yes, to the last sentence. One day we will hopefully eliminate the poachers, but by then the rhinos could be extinct. If the market they supplied with rhino horn is forced to turn to some other substance (hopefully not from another animal!!!!) then they may realise they never benefited from rhino horn after all... Then we will have the rhinos necessary to repopulate the wild!

1:10PM PST on Nov 17, 2014

To all those C2 members who think the rhinos should be left alone.... Since when did poachers stop threatening wild rhinos with extinction? Have you got rid of all these poachers? What life would *you* choose if freedom carried such a huge risk of being cruelly murdered?

If people feel that trying to live as their forefathers did is too dangerous, then just look at the world's refugee problem! How many Syrians are desperate to get out of their ancestral country?Refugees don't enjoy such good living conditions as rhinos in a responsible zoo, and freedom is not something you associate with being a refugee.

2:36PM PDT on Sep 1, 2014

I just hope the hormone treatment will not eventually harm the Rhinos.
Hopefully it will save them from extinction "Nous Verrons"
The main thing we must do is get rid of these dreadful poachers. Also teach the Chinese that parts from animals have no use regarding health.

7:05AM PDT on Sep 1, 2014

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Angev

10:26AM PDT on Aug 31, 2014

Very interesting, here's hopeing that it actually leads to helping the species to survive.

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