Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=224877
Story Retrieval Date: 11/28/2014 9:36:00 PM CST
Lincoln Park Zoo
When: Wednesday, Oct. 23.
Where: Cafe Brauer at Lincoln Park Zoo
Price: $17 ($14 for Lincoln Park Zoo members)
This event is for adults 18+
Participants can mingle over a glass of wine before listening to three zoo experts talk rhino conservation. Rachel Santymire, an endocrinologist, Sarah Long, an animal matchmaker and Mark Kamhout, the zoo’s curator of mammals, will discuss working together to bring animals together.
Kamhout and Lincoln Park Zoo’s public relations director, Sharon Dewar, spoke in a phone interview about wild rhinos in jeopardy, the zoo’s new rhino calf King and why the event is worth a trek to the zoo this Wednesday evening.
Mark, what’s the nature of the collaboration between you, Rachel Santymire and Sarah Long?
MARK: Rachel basically monitors hormones in animal species. The really neat thing about that is we can do it non-invasively, where we don’t affect the animals much—we collect their feces to monitor reproductive hormones and stress. She’s done a lot of work in the wild. She also makes my job easier because I look at the animals’ behavior and that tells me when to introduce them. She gives me the hormonal data.
Sarah Long is actually the matchmaker. She will make recommendations based on animals’ genetics. We work with over 200 other AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an international organization] zoos to look at, genetically, what animals would be the best match. She tells us which would be a genetic match, I see if they’re interested in each other.
SHARON: Mark and his team of zookeepers are working with those individual animals. Black rhinos are solitary, so they do not live together normally. They’d be quite aggressive if they were put in the same area and they were not in the perfect timing to be put together for breeding purposes. If you make the wrong decision, if you put them together, you’re talking about several thousand pound animals that are going to be aggressive to each other.
After mating occurs, then Mark and his team will continue to observe behavior. Doctor Rachel will continue to monitor the hormones to see if a pregnancy has taken place.
Kapuki recently gave birth to baby rhino King at the zoo. How unusual is that?
MARK: There are about two to three black rhino calves born every year in AZA zoos. It’s pretty rare and we’re proud of the accomplishment. This was years in the making. We started sending [Kapuki] to be with the male six years ago, or six and a half years ago.
Will King stay at Lincoln Park Zoo?
MARK: He’s going to stay with his mom for at least two, if not three years. It’s very similar to in the wild—the female will keep the calf with her, another male or the same male might breed the female, and eventually the female is going run the calf off. We follow a similar timeline here. That’s where population scientists like Sarah Long come into play—what’s the best place for King to go to? And then the cycle starts all over.
The Rescuing Rhinos event looks at black rhino conservation efforts. What’s the current status of black rhino populations in the wild?
SHARON: What is impacting rhinos the most is a trade in their horns. I don’t know that people in the U.S. are buying rhino horn on the black market, but over in Asia there’s an increased demand for it. The poachers are getting more advanced at what they do and it’s really devastating the population because there is a consumer market for the rhino horn. People mistakenly believe has some kind of medicinal power, which it does not.
MARK: There used to be 65,000 of these black rhinos up to the 1970’s and then the poachers just ravaged them for their horns. There were 2,000 by the early 1990’s. National parks beefed up their protection of them and their population bumped up to where it is now, around 5,000. But it’s very vulnerable because they’re only found in certain areas of Africa, certain national parks, and they’re just being devastated. We’ve already lost 500 or 600 this year. These guys are at a critical point in their population and history.
Tell us about black rhinos and the effort to save them.
MARK: Despite their reputation of being charging animals, they have unique personalities and they’re very sensitive. Rhinos, I think, are very unique in that regard. They’re the symbol for the Species Survival Plan [a conservation program run by the AZA]—it’s a mother rhino and her calf. They serve as an example for the rest of the species that are threatened and endangered throughout the world.
They’re mega mammals, which people can identify with. They’re very charismatic. In the wild you would never approach because they can be aggressive and you want to respect them from a distance. But when they get to know you, they’re very smart, and we do a lot of neat training with them.
Wait a minute. You train rhinos?
MARK: We use operant conditioning. What you use with your dog or cat at home, ironically you can use the same training techniques here with a 3,000-pound rhino. You use different reinforcements for them; you don’t want to just keep giving them food. They also love tactile stimulation.
We train them in husbandry behaviors that allow us to check their feet and check their skin. Vets come over that the animals don’t see as much. The rhinos get used to them; we have rhinos open their mouths or let vets look in their ear. We were even able to ultrasound Kapuki [King’s mother] with our head vet. It’s kind of hard because rhinos are so big and thick, but we could see some things in there.
There’s [also] fun training to keep them mentally and physically stimulated. King is coming up and interacting with staff. Part of being a young cute male rhino is you want to run around and have fun. It’s a mixture of having fun with the animals and keeping it interesting for them and us.
What does Rachel Santymire do when researching rhinos “in the wild”?
SHARON: The work that Dr. Santymire is doing in Africa is looking at hormone levels as they pertain to gestation and pregnancy and also stress. One of the studies that she did in the national park [South Africa’s Addo National Elephant Park] is…there’s basically two separate areas of that park. One area is accessible to tourists and that area also has other animals like lions. And then there’s a separate area of that park that’s more isolated. No vehicular traffic, no predators. Rachel can use fecal samples non-invasively to analyze [rhinos’] hormones and stress levels and was able to assess stress factors. The ones that have some of these stress factors are not reproducing as frequently as animals in the other area [of the park]. This sort of science can be provided to managers of parks and land management folks who can make decisions that will impact rhinos.
What can the average person do to help with black rhino conservation?
SHARON: Becoming educated about the species, understanding what’s impacting them and making sure we don’t contribute in any way to that sort of trade in wildlife parts is important. If there’s not the demand for it, the rhinos will be OK. From right here at home, you might feel like, “OK, I’m not buying rhino horn.” But there are institutions like ourselves and Dr. Santymire working with national parks at conserving these animals. Providing support for Lincoln Park Zoo financially or by attending these events is a great way to help.
I’m the mother of an 18-month-old and I think of when my son is my age—the fact that rhinos might be extinct. We are wiping out these species from existence. It’s hard to fathom, and it’s not something that you can take back. When they’re gone, they’re gone. If a lot of people decide this is a message they want to share and they want to convince others this animal’s worth saving, these small things can make a big difference. Humans can be responsible for their devastation, but also on the side of their salvation.