The Cincinnati Zoo has recently announced that they plan on taking the controversial move of mating their rare Sumatran rhino female with the only male Sumatran rhino located in the US: her little brother. Harapan, the six year old male, was recently brought back to the Cincinnati Zoo from his home at the Los Angeles Zoo in order to mate with his older sister, soon-to-be nine year old female named Suci. The attempted mating process if believed to begin some time in August.
This is a drastic step, but some conservation experts believe they have no other choice. Sumatran rhino populations have plummeted drastically over recent years and current statistics show that there are only as few as 100 of these two-horned rhinoes left in the wild due to human encroachment and poaching and only 10 in captivity around the world. Of the 10 in captivity, 4 are closely related with 3 of them having been bred at the Cincinnati Zoo. Artificial insemination has previously been tried but has never succeeded in Sumatran rhinos. This means that shipping sperm from a genetically unique, non-relative of Suci is not possible. With Suci reaching her 9th birthday this month, the only male of mating age in the US is her little brother and the only other male in captivity of mating age besides him is her older brother, eleven year old Andalas, who is currently located in Indonesia. Andalas has successfully bred with a wild female in Indonesia and there are continued efforts for him to breed more. Unless Indonesia is able to capture more animals and can make an unrelated male available to those at the Cincinnati Zoo, this step needs to be taken in order to try and save the species, according to Terri Roth, director of the Linder Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife.
According to Roth, female Sumatran rhinos tend to develop fertility problems if their reproductive organs are not used. This is another reason why there is a major push to try and mate the siblings. Female Sumatran rhinos fertility has been described as a “use it or lose it” kind of problem. They need to breed in order to keep their reproductive organs from developing cysts that can eventually lead to infertility, according to experts.
The Sumatran rhino is the most endangered species left. They are descended from Ice Age woolly rhinos and are the least recognizable species and the most harmless. According to Roth, these rhinos are not a danger to humans and they don’t even disturb crops. “The Sumatran rhino is a forest dwelling species and therefore also plays an integral role in maintaining the forest ecosystem,” Roth said. According to experts, this species is a browser that normally eats things such as brush and saplings. This is important because by doing this, they clear paths for smaller animals as well as aid in the dispersal of seeds and make room for new and younger trees to grow.
This decision has caused quite the debate. As previously stated, many experts believe that this is the last option. Others, however, believe that this step would cause more harm than good. As many people know, mating relatives of any species can lead to many health issues in the offspring, including physical abnormalities, harmful genetic mutations, and even poor sperm quality or infertility. David Wildt, the head of the Center for Species Survival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, describes this step as more of a strategy, not a solution. “In general, we are very much against the idea of breeding relatives because we know that more often than not it causes problems.”
Many are hoping that this news will force the Indonesian government to take steps to capture more wild rhinos and add them to their sanctuary population in order to boost breeding options. Roth is aware of the differing opinions this kind of publicity has brought about, and she hopes it will raise people’s interest in preserving these animals habitats. She believes we [the world] are about to lose this animal quietly, without much thought, and she doesn’t want to see that happen.