Saturday, 31 March 2012

All About Rhinos (Part 2)

On December 26, an invite went out to press from all over Malaysia (and Singapore) from the Sime Darby Foundation. After 20 months of trying, just as the foundation money was due to run out, the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) had managed to capture Puntung, a female rhino, of breeding age.

Everyone was understandably jubilant. BORA had been trying for months. But the unusual rainfall meant that the rhino did not have to come by the river to drink. She could get water further uphill, in the thick of the forest away from the madding crowd, rhinos being solitary creatures, after all.

Sime Darby Foundation, which had provided the initial RM5 million grant had been watching anxiously. How could it justify the money spent if she hadn’t been caught, thereby injecting life and hope into the planned captive breeding programme?

The money, which would run out in July this year, had been used to construct the temporary quarters to place the rhinos as well to staff the wildlife reserve. But so far, there were only two rhinos there – Tam, the male rhino who had walked into an oil palm plantation and refused to go back into the forest in 2008, and Gelogob, a female rhino who had been translocated from Lok Kawi, who was found to be too old to breed.

“With Puntung here there is new hope for this critically endangered species. If we didn’t have Puntung, I don’t know how I could have made a case (for Sime Foundation to renew its financial commitment). But now we have her, I am confident I can. Of course, it’s up to the council to approve it,” Sime Darby foundation CEO Yatela Zainal Abidin says.

But she does regret that it took so long to catch the rhino. “We could have done more in a shorter time with better results if we had captured her earlier. But in the process, we learned the best way to rescue a rhino. If we continue with our programme, we are confident of capturing another one within a year. There’s evidence of another rhino in this place called Kalumba.”

BORA executive director Dr John Payne explained that the unusual rainfall was an enormous constraint. “Sumatran rhinos caught before year 2000 were almost all in accessible small patches of forest in a landscape with road access. That was quite easy to handle. Following the December 2011 capture and translocation of Puntung, we now know that it is possible to trap and move a rhino from extensive forested hills, where living and working – for humans - is not easy.

“As with any enterprise, this can be done only through good planning and tight discipline. We now know that it is possible to remove the rhino without chemical immobilisation, using a wooden crate and a big helicopter, and without the rhino “freaking out” or “dying of a heart attack” as some had feared,” he points out.

Puntung went into a trap which had been completed barely two days before she entered it. The first four traps built to catch her during 2010 to mid-2011 were located at sites convenient for people to build and monitor. The fifth and sixth traps were built at inconvenient sites on remote trails where they knew she moved from time to time.”

Puntung has only three functioning feet. She is believed to have caught the fourth in a snare when she was just a cub, and pulled it out, pulling out most of her hoof in the process. Her presence had first been detected in 2005. BORA chairman Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad, who is also an associate professor with the Universiti Malaysia Sabah said the vets could never figure out why nobody could get a proper footprint with all four feet. “Then in 2007, she was captured for the first time on camera and we discovered that she only had three feet.”

They started trying to trap her in April 2010. “It was a drought then, and we built the trap close to the river on low ground, but when it was completed, it started to rain and it has not stopped raining since. Rhinos will remain on the hills if it is wet because they don’t have to go to the river. We built six traps progressively and the last one was at the highest point. It was a simple trap and she walked in on December 18,” says Abdul Hamid.

Once she was caught they had to figure out how to transport her to the sanctuary. She would have to be airlifted; the question was by whom. Payne says: “One choice was the Royal Malaysian Air Force and the other was the Erickson Air Crane from Miri, Sarawak which was usually used to lift heavy logs. We all agreed that it was best to pay these people and they would have to do it.”

She was scheduled to be airlifted on December 24, but like everything else in this operation, the rain got in the way. “We were ready to go at 6.30 that morning but it started raining at about 1.30 in the morning and didn’t stop till 5.30am the next afternoon,” Payne says.

The rain did not dissipate completely but had subsided to a light drizzle, with enough visibility for the pilot to see the crate suspended at the bottom of 350 feet of cable. The trip took all of eight minutes and so it was that Puntung made her arrival at the sanctuary on Christmas Day. Great was the rejoicing in the land.

She was a hit from the beginning. Even the company that helped airlift her took to her. In fact, according to Abdul Hamid, they returned RM29,000 of their fee, charging only for the actual flying time, rather than all the waiting time as well.
Since she arrived at the sanctuary, her wounds have been treated, and she has taken stock of her surroundings and found that she likes it. Mostly, she loves how much food she is getting. Payne points out that the staple of Sumatran rhino food are leaves and twigs of a variety of woody plants, mainly from saplings and young trees.

In the interim rhino facilities at Tabin, each rhino is provided with a minimum of 50 kilograms of leaves and twigs, harvested daily from the forest at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and mostly from a dozen or so favourite plant species. As a supplement, about 1 kg of horse pellets and fruits are provided daily to top up protein, vitamins and minerals, which tend to be lacking in a diet of leaves alone.

But Puntung eats about twice as much. Her daily intake is carefully weighed and monitored and she is up to about 102 kgs of fruits and leaves a day. Abdul Hamid says she doubled her intake of food two weeks after she arrived. “She has about 6kg of fruit and 50 kg of leaves that we hand feed her. That excludes the leaves we hang on the walls to keep her quiet at night. But when we come to her stall in the morning, she’s already asking for more food. We are trying to train her for feeding times but it looks like she is training the trainer.”

In addition to ensuring good nutrition, medication is applied as necessary. Both Puntung and Tam were covered in green antibiotic cream on their various cuts. Payne points out that routine medication tends to be treating of minor cuts and abrasions, and de-worming medicine.

And hygiene is of prime importance. “Vehicle tyres and human boots go through a bath of disinfectant every time they approach the rhino night stalls. The biggest threat to the rhinos’ health is build-up of common bacteria on floors and in water and food. Each rhino is bathed with plain water at least once daily. Sumatran rhinos in the wild bathe through the hottest hours of the day in liquid mud, in wallows that they create themselves. Bathing in mud helps keep away biting insects, maintains a moderate body temperature, and keeps the skin in good condition. Rhinos in captivity also need to bathe in mud daily for the same reasons.”

During the press trip to inspect Puntung, there were also representatives from the Leipzig Zoo in attendance. Leipzig Zoo and Berlin-based Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) signed an MoU with the state government to work out the rhino management plan. The IZW will provide, among other things, veterinary and scientific assistance that will be partly funded by the Leipzig Zoo.

Leipzig Zoo director Jorg Junhold was there, measuring Puntung’s bad leg so it can fitted with a prosthetic which will allow her greater freedom of movement. Her bad leg caused a few heart-wrenching moments even as she continued to feed and vocalize quite happily at the visitors.

At a speech during the round of presentations at Tabin, Junhold, who talked about the importance of zoos worldwide and their role in conservation programmes, reaffirmed his commitment: “We will continue, we will make funds available, we will share our knowledge and experience.”

Payne says it is early days to talk about breeding. “Puntung probably needs a couple of months to recover physiologically from the stress of capture. Preliminary hormonal evidence suggests that she is cycling in terms of regular production of eggs. A more complete investigation is scheduled for late February 2012, to be led by specialists from the IZW.”

He explains that this institute is a global leader in getting recalcitrant, rare large mammals to breed. Its work in Sabah is funded by German Government and by Leipzig Zoo. “The decisions on how best to get Puntung to produce baby rhinos will be up to Sabah Wildlife Department. Sumatran rhinos are by nature very solitary animals, and they have to be kept separate from each other for most of the time. Natural breeding will need several ingredients, including regular hormonal cycling in Puntung and good sperm production by Tam, as well as behavioural compatibility between them, plus a better paddock than we now have available, for them to be put together on a roughly monthly basis.

“If any of those ingredients are lacking, artificial insemination would be a preferred choice, but that needs adequate quantities of excellent quality Sumatran rhino sperm, which as of now we lack. In the worst case short-term scenario, the only thing that could be done for the time being would be hormone stimulation to promote production of eggs, which can be flushed and preserved in liquid nitrogen until adequate sperm is available. But that would mean the need for in-vitro fertilisation, with sperm and egg being handled outside a rhino womb, adding to the associated technical problems,” he points out.

But rhinos are solitary animals. They do not take to each other and their tendency when confronted with each other, is to fight. Abdul Hamid points out that they have learned to keep the two apart until the female is in what is called “standing heat” when she stands firmly, refusing to budge, presenting her posterior to the bull who has nothing to do but mount her.

Even when a mating is concluded successfully, conception is still tricky, depending on the viability of the bull’s sperm. And even when the female gets pregnant, she is unlikely to carry the baby to term, as was demonstrated by Emi, the Sumatran rhino in the Cincinnati Zoo who miscarried five times before she gave birth to three cubs.

“A rhino cub is like a miracle. It is difficult, but we have to try. We cannot just let them go extinct when we could have done something,” Yatela concludes.

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