Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sumatran Rhinos and Zoos

A Case History of Zoos and Wildlife Conservation

Fourteen years ago, I was among a group of conservationists sitting in the board room of Toronto Zoo, discussing the fate of proboscis monkeys in distant Borneo (the only country where they occur in the wild). Wildfires had destroyed much of the monkeys’ habitat and the zoo wanted to bring some to Toronto “to conserve the species.” But, when I asked if any of the captured monkeys or their offspring would ever be returned to the forests of Borneo, I was told no; being raised in captivity would effectively prevent them from ever being returned to the wild. When I pointed out that domesticating yet another animal species had nothing to do with “conservation,” I received an odd, honest reply from one of the zoo curators. “But,” he said, after some thought, “I’m a zoo man and I just naturally think of zoo-based solutions.”

In the end, the monkeys stayed in Borneo.

As I pointed out in my previous two blogs, yes, captive breeding can be an important conservation tool for a small number of endangered species—but it does not require traditional public zoo facilities in our towns and cities. Quite the contrary. And yet, zoos imply that, in some way, the act of breeding endangered species protects them. Just last week, a local Ontario zoo, African Lion Safari, announced the captive birth of an Asian elephant, naturally conceived to parents who were, themselves, captive born. But overall, elephants are dying in North American zoos faster than they are being born. The National Zoo says, “Within the next fifty years, there may not be elephants in zoos.” For there to be zoo elephants, wild imports will be required, and they are usually animals orphaned by culls in areas where encroachment has reduced land available to elephants, or orphaned by poaching. Ironic, then, that the very forces that are endangering elephants serve the zoo community’s ability to display elephants. That’s not “conservation.”

Currently, the most critically endangered large mammal in the world is the once widely distributed Sumatran rhinoceros: a small, hairy, and little known two-horned rhino which has been slaughtered for its horn, used in traditional medicine in Asia, and has had much of its habitat destroyed, especially by palm oil plantations. Although the Sumatran rhinoceros has been kept in zoos from as early as 1872, it doesn’t survive well away from its jungle home.

No matter; in the 1980s, the zoo community took 40 of these rare animals out of the wild and placed them into zoos around the world. That was a sizeable portion of the entire population. All were registered in a captive breeding program, and we were told that the zoo “experts’” research into the rhinos’ reproductive biology would assure their survival and propagation. This is called “ex situ” conservation: literally off-site conservation.

But, by the late 1990s, just prior to Toronto Zoo coveting proboscis monkeys, those of us who opposed the program knew that our fears had merit. Not a single Sumatran rhinoceros was born to any of those 40 animals. In fact, half of them had died! By 1997, the three animals remaining in U.S. zoos were united in Cincinnati, where, with special hormonal treatments, young calves were finally born and shipped to Sumatra, where it is possible to keep the animals “in situ” (meaning that they are captive, yes, but “on site” within their native habitat and thus able to develop necessary skills to survive in the wild).

There is still the issue of poaching and deforestation, neither issue requiring those of zoos to be solved. For some endangered species, it may well be that hosting countries will, in the end, lack the ability to protect in situ captive animals from poaching, local warfare, or natural disasters. But oh, if only all of those Sumatran rhinos had not been wasted, and if only the money spent on shipping them across the planet had been focused on where they belong, then maybe, just maybe, there would be more of them, and they’d have a better chance of survival.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA