Sunday, July 25, 2004

Group one of nation's few to help save species

By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer

Sihil, an ocelot conceived through in vitro fertilization, peeks around a pole at the Cincinnati Zoo on Friday as Terri Roth, director of the CREW program, watches.
The Enquirer/TONY JONES
The Cincinnati Zoo's Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife eagerly awaits what would be its greatest accomplishment - the second successful birth in captivity of a Sumatran rhino; the feat has never before been accomplished with one of the world's most endangered animals.

But the conservation center has been throwing lifelines to endangered wildlife since it was founded in 1981.

At that time, it was one of only a few zoo-based research programs in the world. Today, there are still fewer than a dozen. Cincinnati's center ranks among the nation's leaders, along with the San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the accrediting agency for zoos nationwide, said his organization doesn't rank zoos or their conservation programs.

But, he said, it does evaluate every aspect of a zoo's operations - from finances to fences - before giving accreditation.

Research vital to save endangered animals
"I do think the Cincinnati Zoo is one of the better institutions in the country. They've got a great education program and a great scientific program," Hutchins said. "The organizations that display these animals have an obligation to contribute to their conservation and to people's education about them."

With a $1 million budget, half of which comes from grants or private donations, the conservation center is trying to tackle some of toughest problems facing endangered animals and plants.

The center is working on 29 conservation or research projects that span the globe, including:

• The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, which seeks to conserve wildlife threatened by commercial hunting in Africa for sale as meat.

• Developing sperm cryopreservation technology, which freezes sperm or embryos from endangered animals so babies can be produced later. This method has been perfected for animals ranging from the Brazilian ocelot to the anurans toad in North America.

• Achieving the world's first test-tube gorilla birth, proving that methods developed for humans also can be used to propagate endangered great apes.

• Developing electro-ejaculation and artificial insemination techniques for the Indian rhinoceros.

• Participating in a rehabilitation and release program for Florida manatees.

• Researching the life history and behavior of the Giant Peruvian Jumping Stick grasshopper.

• Establishing the Endangered Plant Propagation Program, in which lab cultures are used to grow endangered plants from North America.

But the center's landmark project focuses on the Sumatran rhino - a giant, solitary animal that lives in dense rain forest and is extremely aggressive with members of its own species. There are fewer than 300 Sumatran rhinos in the world, and only a handful in captivity.

Emi, the zoo's resident female, could give birth any day to her second calf in three years, thanks to procedures pioneered by center director Dr. Terri Roth.

Emi is considered the first Sumatran rhino ever to give birth in captivity when she had 72-pound Andalas in the fall of 2001. A Sumatran rhino was impregnated inside the confines of a zoo more than 112 years ago, but that was considered "an accident" that scientists and zookeepers never managed to repeat.

Figuring out how to get Emi to mate with the zoo's male, Ipuh, was a dirty job. Roth gave Emi rectal ultrasound tests three times a week and regularly drew blood from the 1,700-pound beast to determine when she was ovulating. It was important work, because putting the animals together at the wrong time could lead to a fight capable of injuring or killing Emi.

After months of research, there was no sign of Emi ovulating. That led zoo officials to place Emi and Ipuh together for brief periods. It was a risky venture, but Emi went into heat two days after one such encounter.

"That was the breakthrough," Roth said. "We discovered females only go into heat after a male tries to mate with them."

Emi lost her initial five pregnancies, leading zoo officials to give her a steroid hormone to facilitate her sixth pregnancy, which resulted in Andalas.

"We never expected the challenge of pregnancy loss," Roth said. "We thought the biggest challenge would be just getting them to breed. But it's a good example of our approach to conservation through science. You solve one problem after another and just keep making progress."

This time around, no hormones were used on Emi. That was another scientific breakthrough because Roth and her colleagues wanted to prove that captive breeding of the animal is possible without drugs.

Richard Farinato, director of the captive wildlife protection program for the Humane Society of the United States, said breeding animals in zoos too often serves only the needs of the zoos.

"A birth itself in a zoo will mean nothing because those animals will never be involved with a wild population," Farinato said. "It's just producing animals for display. There's no connection between rhinos on the ground and what goes on in zoos."

Roth disagrees.

The Sumatran rhino births have made other, if less obvious, contributions toward saving the species, she said. Scientists now have footprints of Andalas as he has grown, so field biologists can identify the age of Sumatran rhinos they never see in the wild. The zoo also has been involved with identifying which forests Sumatran rhinos are most likely to live in, so armed guards can better protect them from poachers.

"These are all different areas of science, but all are aimed at saving the species," Roth said. "First you make the commitment to saving a species, then you do whatever science is needed."


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