Kenya gives rare rhino hope of survival

Saturday December 26 2009

By MUGUMO MUNENE and Reuters

It was a Christmas gift to Kenya this week when four northern white rhinos were relocated from the Czech Republic back to the wild in Laikipia. A Boeing 747 transported two males, Sudan, 37, and Suni, 30, and two females Najim, 20, and her offspring Fatu, 9, in containers specially equipped for the tw-tonne animals. They were then driven out of Nairobi to Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The relocation of the four rhinos — half the known population of the extremely rare animal left in the world — is seen as handing them a lifeline. Rhino experts believe that releasing the rhinos into their natural habitat in the wild might help them reproduce and survive as a subspecies.

“Northern white rhinos are the world’s rarest large mammal,” said Dr Rob Brett, a conservationist. “They are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and are thought to be extinct in the wild. Moving them now is a last bid effort to save them and their gene pool from total extinction.”

It is a second attempt by Kenya to introduce new species of rhinos after the 70 southern white rhinos whose numbers have grown to a healthy population of 326. The latest four were flown from Dvur Králové Zoo in a scientific experiment dubbed the ‘‘Last Chance to Survive’’ after failing to reproduce since 1985, said Kenya Wildlife Service spokesperson Paul Udoto. Two others remained behind while another pair is in San Diego in the US.

“The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is immensely proud to have received the endorsement of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group in hosting these animals, giving them a chance to breed at the 11th hour,” said Richard Vigne, the chief executive officer of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

“If we are successful, the preservation of their unique locally adapted genetic traits may allow their natural range to be re-stocked in the coming years,” Mr Vigne said.

Captive breeding

To date, captive breeding of northern white rhino in zoos has had limited success, with breeding only occurring at Dvur Kralove Zoo. The last calf was born in 2000. “Together with our partners, we plan to provide the remaining individuals with breeding potential their last chance of normal and regular reproduction in a secure location in the wild,” said Dana Holeková, director of Dvur Králové Zoo.

“The cause for the move is to induce normal social and territorial behaviour that is essential for the rhinos to breed routinely.” The project is being carried out by a partnership of conservation organisations, including Fauna & Flora International, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Dvur Králové Zoo, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Back to Africa, and the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The rhinos were accompanied by experts, including their keeper Jan Zdarek and veterinarian Dr Jiri Vahala, from Dvur Králové Zoo, rhino veterinarian Dr Pete Morkel, and Berry White, a woman known as the rhino whisperer and who prepared the animals for the international relocation.

White rhinos are the largest land mammals after elephants and typically live in herds of up to 14 animals. The numbers of the northern subspecies have plummeted from an estimated 500 in the 1970s due mainly to poachers. The Czech zoo first got the white rhinos in 1975 when a male and female arrived from Sudan at the ages of two and three years. Zoologists have tried to get the animals to breed but after initial success there has been only one birth in the past 10 years.

While zoo officials hope a return to the wild will spur successful mating, opponents say the plan puts the animals at risk because they have spent all of their lives in very different conditions from those they will experience in Africa.

“The results of such an undertaking are unpredictable and (we) do not believe that any significant conservation benefits will happen,” said the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Zoologists at Dvur Kralove have also cut off the rhinos’ almost metre-long horns to protect the animals in transit.

The horns will eventually grow back. The zoo plans to keep the horns it has sawed off before the trip for lectures but already has had to rebuff requests for the material, considered a powerful aphrodisiac in parts of Asia.