police escort accompanied him to LAX, and Reinhart flew with him in a cargo plane to Cincinnati. A few weeks later, the zoo put out a press release announcing Harapan’s arrival. The news that it was going to try to mate siblings seemed to bring the crisis home in a way that the many previous efforts to publicize the rhino’s plight had failed to do. The story was picked up in headlines around the world. “You can talk till you’re blue in the face,” Terri Roth, vice president for conservation and science at the zoo, told me. “There are very few rhinos. The Sumatran rhino is highly endangered. Even when you tell people, There’s only a hundred of them. But when you tell people you have to breed a brother and a sister because that’s all that’s left, boy, does that get their attention. Then people are suddenly like, this is a problem.”
; illustration by bruce morser
s it happens, Harapan and Suci are
themselves products of an earlier last-ditch effort to save the Sumatran rhino, which was initiated in 1984. That year, a group of conservationists gathered, also in Singapore, to try to hammer out a plan to protect the species. Historically, the Sumatran rhino’s range extended all the way from the foothills of the Himalayas, in what is now Bhutan and northeastern India, down through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Malay Peninsula and throughout almost all of Sumatra and Borneo. But by the 1980s, it had been reduced to the northern tip of Borneo, some scattered reserves on Sumatra, and a few locations in Peninsular Malaysia, and it was clear that the rhino was in grave danger. Poaching and habitat loss were driving down the number of breeding adults, and those animals that remained were left in isolated forest fragments. It was decided that a captive breeding program should be started to ensure against the species’ total loss. Between 1985 and 1994, 40 animals were captured, seven of which were sent to zoos in the United States. The program got off to a rocky start. Ten rhinos were taken into custody in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the northeastern tip of Borneo. Two of them died of injuries sustained during capture. A third died of tetanus, and none produced any offspring. In Peninsular Malaysia, 11 animals were caught. In a span of less than three weeks, five of them died from an outbreak of trypanosomiasis, a parasitic disease spread by flies. In the United States, things didn’t go much better. The zoos were feeding the rhinos hay, but Sumatran rhinos, it turns out, can’t live on hay; they require fresh leaves and branches. By the time anyone figured this out, only three of the seven U.S. rhinos were still alive, each in a different city. In 1995 the Bronx and Los Angeles zoos sent their rhinos—both females—to Cincinnati, which had the only surviving male, a bull named Ipuh. It was right around this time that Roth arrived in the Queen City from Washington, D.C., where she’d been working with big cats at the National Zoo. It fell to her to try to salvage the captive breeding program. A decade into the effort, the rhino’s reproductive habits still remained mysterious. Sumatran rhinos are shy and solitary. They’re wary of other rhinos and so can’t be kept in the same enclosure. But unless the females and the male were brought together, obviously they couldn’t mate. Roth has an understated sort of determination. She threw herself into the study of rhino physiology, collecting blood samples, analyzing feces, testing urine. She became adept at performing rhino ultrasounds, an exercise that involved sticking her arm deep into the rhinos’ rectums.
sylvia fallon Director of the wildlife conservation project in NRDC’s lands and wildlife program
Climate change and habitat loss are driving many species to extinction. What are some of the other threats? Well, another crisis is the burgeoning international trade in imperiled wildlife. Whether it’s reptiles and primates for pet stores, tigers for medicine, or ivory for decoration, the wildlife trade is driving species to extinction and threatening global biodiversity. Specifically, the demand for elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn is growing at an alarming rate. Many people assume that the main demand is from China and Southeast Asia, but the United States and Europe are in fact bigger traders in wildlife—both legal and illegal. What are the consequences of losing species such as the Sumatran rhino? Scientists have only recently begun to understand the broader ecological effects associated with the loss of some of these species from their ecosystems. They have found that “apex consumers,” which include large-bodied herbivores like the rhinoceros, can have profound effects on their habitat. Their grazing of grasslands contributes to the overall diversity of the area, and by controlling vegetation as well as affecting how the ground absorbs moisture, grazing also mediates the rate and extent of wildfires. Studies have shown that fires are bigger and more extensive in areas where populations of large herbivores like rhinos have diminished. Are other apex consumers also at risk? Absolutely. Top predators have been one of the most persecuted groups of animals, because of the danger they can pose to humans and because they compete with us for food. In the United States, for example, we nearly exterminated wolves before the Endangered Species Act allowed them to recover, although they still occupy only a fraction of their historic range. For similar reasons, humans have driven other predators to the point of near-extinction, such as lions in Africa, tigers in Asia, and sharks in the oceans worldwide. Because predators occupy the top of the food chain, their loss ripples throughout the food web, causing changes all the way down to plant populations and the species they support, like insects and birds. A recent study in the journal Science concludes that top predators are critical to maintaining biodiversity and the overall functioning of ecosystems. The authors called for a global initiative to conserve the world’s remaining predators.
onearth 5 3