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Today's Rhinos: Comparing Clara's Life to Contemporary Rhinos, a Rhino Expert's Perspective, Part 2

Editor's note: Read Part 1 of Dr. Swaisgood's essay, about the dangers today's rhinos face.

A lot has changed since Clara went on the show circuit in Europe, inspiring Oudry to capture her essence—and perhaps the essence of the time—on canvas. In the mid-18th century, Clara’s life would hardly resemble the life of the rhinos in our 100-acre enclosures at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, and it is doubtful that Clara inspired any conservation action back in her native country. In the modern zoo, rhinos must serve as ambassadors for their own conservation, inspiring science and education that translates into better lives for them in captivity and in the wild.

The Zoological Society of San Diego takes the various threats to rhinos seriously. We participate in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plans for three species, the Indian, black and white rhinoceroses. The goal of these programs is to establish sustainable captive populations to serve as a safeguard against extinction in the wild and, if necessary, to provide animals for release back to the wild after the threats have been removed. Our rhinos have flourished and we have produced more Indian and white rhino calves than any other institution.

At the San Diego Zoo’s center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) researchers have studied genetics, nutrition, disease, physiology, behavior, and ecology of rhinos. I’ve been involved in a black rhino translocation program in South Africa and Namibia for several years. The governments of these countries are engaged in a large-scale translocation program to re-populate southern Africa with these charismatic animals—that is, they capture them in reserves where there are surplus rhino and move them to areas where they are rare or locally extinct. The problem is, released black rhinos don’t always do so well and can become stressed, run through fences and injure themselves, or fight. Mortalities are unacceptably high. We’ve been working to try to remedy this situation. We’ve tried a number of different strategies to make these translocations more successful—one even involved carrying backpacks full of rhino dung out to “seed” areas with rhino scent in the hope of getting them to settle down in the right place, just next to the virtual scent territory we created. It worked!

In another program I’ve been involved in for a decade, we’ve been trying to solve the mystery of poor reproduction among female white rhinos born in captivity. The wild-caught females brought into zoos around the world bred well, at least when managed appropriately. But the daughters of these females have been notoriously difficult to breed. I’ve conducted some studies that ruled out most hypotheses (no, the older wild-caught females are not suppressing reproduction in the younger captive-born ones), but we still are in search of a definitive answer. It seems that something is happening during the development of female calves in captivity, since often the only thing different about the captive-born and wild-caught females is where they grew up. This insight has led me to pursue field studies in Africa, but, while providing more insights (and ticks and near-death experiences!), we still have not solved the problem. We are now embarking on new multi-disciplinary studies, hoping to nail this one down before we run out of time. Most of the wild-caught females are aging and beginning to die off, so we could watch the captive population go extinct if something isn’t done soon. And, with the possibility of political instability always lurking, we never know when the wild population may undergo yet another rapid decline if the anti-poaching programs aren’t maintained. If left unprotected, they can go fast—more than 95% of black rhinos were wiped out in a decade or so.

Re: Today's Rhinos: Comparing Clara's Life to Contemporary Rhinos, a Rhino Expert's Perspective, Part 2

The San Diego Wildlife is exemplary of what a zoo ought to you believe keeping a rhino in a small 1/2 acre enclosure as being humane?

Re: Today's Rhinos: Comparing Clara's Life to Contemporary Rhinos, a Rhino Expert's Perspective, Part 2

It is sad to see some people have these misconstrued ideas about zoos and their conservation work. All the more so, since he or she is not even willing to put their name down while expressing an opinion. Whereas it is healthy a debate may occur, it is rather unhealthy that some do not wish to be identified while expressing their opinion.

Anyway, I support zoos in what they do and no .. I do not work at any of them. My opinion however is relevant and equitable. The San Diego Zoo thru its maintenance and breeding of the various rhinos is helping to save the species as well. Most research on rhinos has been only possible by having close contact with captive rhinos. Veterinary care, translocation exercises, nutritional and behavioral studies having given us a better knowledgebase from which to develop adequate conservation strategies both ex and in situ.

Thanks to work on captive rhinos our understanding and need to understand wild rhino ecology is only just developing. Population and genetic studies are becoming equally important as studbook work in captive rhinos has shown. Now rhinos are being moved frequently between reserves in African range countries to ensure genetically and reproductively healthy populations. Zoos are also an important source of financial aid to supporting field rhino conservation projects. Last year a campaign to raise financial support for rhinos in the wild was even set up by both the European and American zoo organisations. Together they have raised in excess of 1,000.000 USdollars for rhino field conservation in both Africa and Asia.

I just thought one should know all the facts before ye judges!

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