Zoo hoping to mate rhino siblings

Inbreeding a problem, but species' survival seen as more vital
2013-07-22T00:00:00Z Zoo hoping to mate rhino siblingsThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CINCINNATI - With the survival of a species on the line, Cincinnati Zoo scientists are hoping to mate their lone female Sumatran rhino with her little brother.

The desperation breeding effort with the rhino siblings follows a recent crisis summit in Singapore where conservationists concluded as few as 100 of the two-horned, hairy rhinos might remain in their native southeast Asia. The species numbers have fallen by up to 90 percent since the mid-1980s as development takes away habitat space and poachers hunt them for their prized horns.

Rhinos overall are dwindling globally, and the Sumatran species, descended from Ice Age woolly rhinos, is one of the most critically endangered.

The Cincinnati Zoo has been a pioneer in captive breeding of the rhino species, producing the first three born in captivity in modern times. Its conservationists this month brought back the youngest, 6-year-old Harapan, from the Los Angeles Zoo and soon will try to have him mate with the zoo's female - his biological sister - 8-year-old Suci.

"We absolutely need more calves for the population as a whole; we have to produce as many as we can as quickly as we can," said Terri Roth, who heads the zoo's Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife. "The population is in sharp decline, and there's a lot of urgency around getting her pregnant."

Critics of captive-breeding programs say they often do more harm than good and can create animals less likely to survive in the wild. Inbreeding increases the possibility of bad genetic combinations for offspring.

"We don't like to do it, and long term, we really don't like to do it," Roth said, adding that the siblings' parents were genetically diverse, which is a positive for the plan. "When your species is almost gone, you just need animals, and that matters more than genes right now - these are two of the youngest, healthiest animals in the population."

The parents of the three rhinos born in Cincinnati have died, but their eldest offspring, 11-year-old Andalas, was moved to a sanctuary in Indonesia where he last year became a father after mating with a wild-born rhino there.

The first coordinated effort at captive breeding began in the 1980s, and about half the initial 40 breeding rhinos died without a successful pregnancy. Roth, who began working on the rhino project in 1996, said it took years just to understand their eating habits and needs and decades more to understand their mating patterns.

"They're definitely difficult to breed because they're so solitary," Roth said. "You can't just house them together. So the only time you can get a successful breeding is if you just put them together when the female is going to be receptive."

Mating between such close rhino relatives might happen in the wild, Roth said, but it's difficult to know because the animals are so rare. If the offspring of such a mating then bred with an unrelated rhino, the genetic diversity would resume in the next generation, she said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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