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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sumatran Sunset

Like many zookeepers, I've got a soft-spot for the obscurities - those little known, often endangered beasties that the rest of the world has never heard of.  Becoming acquainted with an animal that no one else even knows about - looking it in the eye, smelling its breath, hearing it move, maybe even touching it - is an incredible experience, and I spend a lot of my non-work time trying to collect such experiences.  Last year, it brought me halfway across the country to the Cincinnati Zoo so I could meet a very special animal up close and personal.

Of the world's five remaining rhinoceros species, three - Africa's white and black rhinos, Asia's Indian rhino - are fairly well represented in zoo collections.  I've seen all three many times, have seen two in the wild, have touched and hand fed two in captivity, and have worked with one as a keeper.  A fourth species, the critically endangered Javan rhino, is not found in captivity at all.  The fifth, and most unusual, was the main object of my trip.  His name is Harapan and he is, at the moment, the only Sumatran rhinoceros outside of Indonesia.  That's about to change... but not in the  way that I'd hoped.

It's rare that a little-known creature like the Sumatran rhino makes the international news.  It's rarer still when it happens twice in a week.  The first was bittersweet, to announce the imminent transfer of Harapan to Indonesia, where he will participate in a captive-breeding program to save the species.  The second was just plan bitter - the Sumatran rhino has been declared extinct in Malaysia.  A species that once ranged across Southeast Asia is now limited to a few tiny pockets on one island... and shrinking fast.

The early efforts to establish captive-breeding populations of Sumatran rhino failed pretty badly and probably did more harm than good - too little was known about the species needs and reproduction biology, which are so different than those of other rhinos.  By the time Harapan and his older siblings came along - a testament to the work that Cincinnati Zoo put into saving the species - the writing was on the wall.  You can only have so much of a breeding program with a single pair of animals.  Eventually, individuals would have to be imported to the US, or the US animals would have to go back to Asia.  

Given the precarious state of conservation in Indonesia, and the fact that Cincinnati has developed a track-record of work with this species, I have to say the first option seems most likely to succeed to me.  Anyway, the decision is made, and Harapan is Sumatra bound... or at least will be at some time this year.

There's a lot of blame to go around for the fate of the Sumatran rhino, which seems somewhat certain.  We can blame the European colonists who shot up the rhinos in the colonial area.  We can blame the palm oil plantations that replaced their forests, and the indifferent consumers who fueled the trade.  We can blame practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine who decided that a rhino horn was worth more than a rhino, and we can blame government officials who never made saving this species a priority.  Mostly, we can blame everyone - there have been several hard-working people dedicated to saving this animal, but no huge public muster of support.  There is no Cecil-style outcry surrounding Harapan's species - people were outraged at the death of an individual, but ignore the loss of a species.  

The day I met Harapan, he never bothered to saunter out into his outdoor exhibit; luckily, I'd arranged with one of his keepers to meet him in his private quarters.  Ushered into the behind-the-scenes holding barn, I found him behind sturdy barriers, eyeing me curiously, sniffing, occasionally offering his orange, shaggy hide up for a scratch.  Nearby, other keepers carefully sorted, washed, and hung the Ficus leaves and branches that were to be his afternoon meal (figuring out what to feed Sumatran rhinos was one of the major challenges in getting them to thrive in captivity).  

I talked with the keeper for a while, mostly about the fate of the Sumatran, a subject upon which she was extremely knowledgeable.  She'd been there for Harapan's birth, as well as that of his siblings and the death of his parents.  She'd told me about the planned import of more rhinos, and how that fell through.  Her gut feeling was, given more rhinos, with what the staff know now, they could breed more - that Harapan and his siblings weren't a fluke.  Then she shrugged.  Politics, she said, simply, and went back to gazing at the rhino.  I left that barn with some cool souvenir photos... and a wicked case of depression.

I've gotten to work with a lot of incredible zoo and aquarium animals, and have seen countless more at other institutions.  Some I've been lucky enough to see in the wild, whether a fleeting glimpse or an intimate encounter.  Still, I have a feeling that, decades from now when I'm old and grey and ready to go extinct myself, there are a few that will hold more meaning to me than others.  I know that one of those will be the memory of a gray, drizzly day in Cincinnati when I reached through the bars of his pen and scratched the backside of America's last Sumatran rhino.

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