Dvůr Králové Zoo spearheading international efforts to save northern white rhino from extinction

Zoos in a number of European countries burned rhino horns on Sunday on the eve of World Rhino Day, in order to highlight the plight of the endangered species. Dvůr Králové Zoo, which has for years spearheaded international efforts to save the northern white rhino from extinction was among them. I spoke to Jan Stejskal, in situ projects coordinator at Dvůr Králové Zoo, about the zoo’s conservation efforts and the chances of saving a species on the brink of extinction.

White rhino in Dvůr Králové Zoo, photo: Barbora KmentováWhite rhino in Dvůr Králové Zoo, photo: Barbora Kmentová “We are actually involved in projects that are aimed at saving two very rare species of rhinos. One of them is the northern white rhino which is a subspecies of the white rhino. The subspecies lived only in central Africa and according to scientists this subspecies has such distinctive characteristics that they say it has differed from other subspecies for at least a million years. There are only seven specimens of this subspecies left in the world and there are none left in the wild. One is in the Dvůr Králové Zoo, two are in the San Diego Zoo in the US and four are held in a semi-wild environment in Kenya. They are not in their original habitat because there is no safe area in their original habitat any more. And those four that are now in the Ol Pejeta nature reserve in Kenya were transported there from the Dvůr Králové Zoo five years ago.”

The Dvůr Králové Zoo is actually the only place in the world where the northern white rhino has bred in captivity. What is the secret to your success? How did you manage to get them to breed?

“It is hard to say what the secret is, but I would say that one of the reasons is that we have really experienced staff. Another reason is that not many northern white rhinos have lived in captivity. I would say that the total number of white rhinos to have ever lived in captivity would be below 30 specimens. So it may be this narrow pool that is behind why only the Dvůr Králové Zoo was successful in breeding northern white rhinos in captivity.”

When did you get your first northern white rhinos?

“It was in 1975 and it was done by the zoo’s then director Josef Wagner. He brought them from south Sudan. It was two males and four females and what is interesting is that none of these females got pregnant. Another female - from Knowsley Safari Park in the UK –had to be brought here a few years later and she was the female that started the captive population of northern white rhinos.”

Jan Stejskal, photo: archive of Jan StejskalJan Stejskal, photo: archive of Jan Stejskal So it is just a question of chance –of getting the right rhinos together…but then there was a lull, the last calf born in Dvůr Králové Zoo was born in the year 2,000 and you sent four northern white rhinos to Kenya in the hope that they would start breeding there. How successful did that prove?

“Well, their health improved in Kenya and even the cycle of the females improved in the years that followed the translocation. Unfortunately, they have not been able to reproduce so far. That is why we decided that it would be good to check whether their reproductive organs are in good shape. We plan to visit them in December with a specialist from Berlin for a series of health checks. ”

If things do not look good - is it the end of the road for the northern white rhino? Are they on the point of extinction even now?

“It is hard to say, but some people would agree that this is the case, that the northern white rhino is practically extinct because the last remaining seven specimens will not be able to reproduce, that we are seeing the last specimens of a species that is actually behind the tipping point of extinction. However the artificial techniques of reproduction are now so advanced that we cling to the belief that there may still be a chance for this species. We are now pursuing those possibilities with the female Nabire who remains in the Dvůr Králové Zoo. She was not translocated to Kenya because she is no longer capable of breeding naturally. But it seems she has one healthy ovary and this could provide us with material from which to create an embryo in artificial conditions. This is something we would like to try and similar attempts could be made with the females which were transported to Kenya. In case they would not be able to reproduce naturally anymore then we would consider some kind of artificial reproduction.”

There has been talk of cross-breeding the northern white rhino with the southern white rhino in order to save the species. Is that underway or is it just being considered?

White rhino in Dvůr Králové Zoo, photo: Barbora KmentováWhite rhino in Dvůr Králové Zoo, photo: Barbora Kmentová “It is underway. What we did is that when it became more and more obvious that the northern white rhinos were having serious problems reproducing and maintaining the purity of the species we decided to give a southern white bull access to northern white females. This happened on January 25th at the Ol Pejeta and we witnessed a few attempts at mating but unfortunately we still do not have the results of an analyses of their fasces samples. That is the only way we have of finding out whether the females are pregnant or not. To be honest at the moment I do not believe they are.”

Who are you cooperating with in this effort?

“We cooperate with Ol Pejeta in Kenya – the institution that holds these four northern white rhinos. I probably should say these four northern white rhinos are the last of their kind that are theoretically still able to reproduce. The other animals –in San Diego Zoo and Dvůr Králové Zoo are not able to reproduce naturally. So we cooperate with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, we cooperate with its sister conservancy Lewa, we cooperate with Back to Africa, an organization that has very good veterinarians who specialize in translocations of rhinos and understand rhinos very well, we cooperate with the veterinary university in Vienna –this is where the analysis of fasces samples take place, and we cooperate with the Institute for Wildlife and Zoo Animals Research based in Berlin –the people in Berlin focus on artificial reproduction techniques in rhinos and elephants and other mammals.”

You say there are just four northern white rhinos that can reproduce, but time is running out, so how many reproductive years do they have? How much time does it give you?

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK “Well, this is very difficult to say because one of the males is over 40, which means that he could die any day. The other male is about 34 so he has some time still but it is also quite an age for a rhino. So our highest hopes are for Fatu who is only 14 years old but on the other hand we know from experience that if the rhino female does not get pregnant prior to the age of eight or nine then there may be a problem which can prevent her from ever getting pregnant. So until we conduct some tests and examine their reproductive organs I cannot really say what the chances and hopes are. ”

Is there not some last ditch solution –like freezing sperm and …

“Yes, actually in the Dvůr Kralove Zoo we have already tried artificial insemination with frozen semen but unfortunately it has so far proven futile. Another thing we could try is that in the event that we can successfully harvest oocytes from the ovaries of the female rhino the sperm would be injected and there is the possibility to create an embryo and insert it into a southern white rhino female which is not as endangered as the northern white rhino. In this way the southern white rhino could give birth to a northern white rhino. Of course this is just a theory, but we are seriously considering going this way. During the examination of the rhinos reproductive organs we would also like to collect a lot of biological samples that would help us at some point in the future to try genetic cloning of the white rhino. What they have achieved in the US is a special kind of cell – induced pluripotent stem cell – and there is a potential that from this cell one could generate a kind of cell that could be used for genetic reproduction. But that is really in the distant future.”

You are also involved in the international fight against poachers and rhino horn trafficking – last Sunday on the eve of World Rhino Day you organized the burning of rhino horns did you not?

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK “Yes, that is true. We realized a few months ago that breeding rhinos and sending them back to Africa is not enough. I should perhaps mention that aside from trying to save the white rhino we are probably one of the best breeders of the black rhino in the world outside of Africa. We sent three black rhinos to Tanzania – where we helped to start a new population of what is now around 100 black rhinos. But as I said, we realized that breeding them and sending them back to Africa is not enough, that we also need to make an effort to fight the demand for rhino horns because that is the driving force behind the poaching. So we decided to make a strong appeal to the public and burn the rhino horns that we have stockpiled for many years – horns from the rhinos that died in the zoo or horns that had to be removed before the rhinos were translocated to other zoos or to Africa. So we organized a big ceremony and invited a number of VIP guests and celebrities. One of the guests of honour was Tony Fitzjohn who actually runs the sanctuary in Tanzania where we sent those three black rhinos. Tony Fitzjohn is a legendary conservationist who worked with John Adamson (Born Free) in Northern Kenya returning lions back to the wild and now he runs the rhino sanctuary in Tanzania. Another VIP guest was the Secretary General of CITES - Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – John Scanlon and another important guest was Monika Leová, the Czech Miss Earth. She is of Vietnamese origin and we were really, really happy to have her because she decided to help us to reach the Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic and the country of her predecessors to convince people that using rhino horns does not make sense because they do not have the properties they are believed to have. And she will also help us to reach the public in this country to make people understand that it is better to have rhinos alive than to kill them for medicine that does not work.”