Zoo births one rhino, scientists make five rhino embryos, trophy hunters buy rights to shoot dozens, & poachers kill 1,000-plus per year
DUBBO, Australia; BERLIN, Germany––The Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, Australia, on March 1, 2021 informed media that it “is celebrating the birth of a critically endangered black rhino calf.”
Born to a four-time mother named Bakhita, the calf “carries the legacy of our black rhino breeding bull, Kwanzaa who sadly passed away in 2020,” intoned Taronga Western Plains Zoo director Steve Hinks.
“Kwanzaa played a prominent role in the black rhino conservation breeding program, siring four calves,” the zoo announcement said, adding that “There are less than 6,000 remaining in the wild.”
Zoo breeding is for exhibit
What the Taronga Western Plains Zoo did not mention is that the black rhino conservation breeding program of which the zoo rhinos are part exists to perpetuate black rhino exhibits among zoos, not black rhinos in the wild.
There is small chance that any of the genetic contributions made by either Kwanzaa or any of his zoo-born offspring will ever be perpetuated in the wild––though rhinos, if released into the wild in Australia, might thrive alongside feral camels and cane toads.
Ecological nativism, also known as bio-xenophobia, is sufficiently intense in Australia that rhinos are likely to be released or escape into wild there only if global warming brings to reality the post-apocalyptic fantasies of the Australian-made “Mad Max” film series.
$400,000 bid won a rhino head from Namibia
Further, while black rhinos are considered critically endangered in much of their historical range, including in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Tanzania, black rhinos remain abundant enough that South Africa and Namibia still auction permits to trophy hunters to shoot them.
Several such permits were reportedly offered at the early February 2021 Dallas Safari Club annual convention, though not offered for open bidding.
Dan’s Excavating chief executive Christopher Daniel Peyerk, of Shelby Township, Michigan, now 53, in 2018 paid $400,000 at a Safari Club auction to shoot a 29-year-old black rhino bull in Mangetti National Park in Namibia.
Peyerk and trophy hunting advocacy organizations, including Safari Club International and the misleadingly named Conservation Force, then spent an unknown additional sum lobbying to persuade the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, under the Donald Trump administration, to amend the trophy import regulations pertaining to endangered species to allow Peyerk to import the skin, skull, and horns of the rhino.
Michigan court records show that Peyerk within about the same time frame served a six-month jail sentence for aggravated domestic violence.
“Conservation” by killing is family tradition
The name Peyerk was already notorious in connection with trophy hunting exploits. A federal judge in Fairbanks, Alaska, in November 2013 convicted Chris D. Peyerk’s mother, Charlotte M. Peyerk, then 66, of shooting a grizzly bear a day before the grizzly hunting season opened.
The judge ordered Charlotte M. Peyerk to pay $25,000 in fines, apologize to Safari Club International, and offer to return her “Diana Award” for female trophy hunters.
The award, which Safari Club International claims honors “exemplary ethics in the field,” was given to Charlotte M. Peyerk in 2010.
Vice chair of the Safari Club award selection committee at the time, Charlotte M. Peyerk qualified for the award by killing the bear.
Chris D. Peyerk’s brother Mark Peyerk, then 40, was fined $40,000 for his part in arranging the grizzly bear killing and the submission of fraudulent documentation of it to the Safari Club.
IUCN ethicists: “Trophy hunting is not consistent with ‘sustainable use'”
The Peyerk family history remained fresh in the minds of trophy hunting observers when the Ethics Specialist Group within the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported in October 2019 that “trophy hunting is not consistent with ‘sustainable use’” of wildlife resources.
The Ethics Specialist Group recommended that nations and organizations advocating for trophy hunting should be expelled from IUCN membership. The IUCN as a whole, however, founded by the United Nations in 1948, has yet to act on the Ethics Specialist Group recommendation.
Kruger National Park rhino populations plummet
Both poaching black rhinos and shooting them in the name of conservation continue apace, with increasingly catastrophic results, Africa Geographic reported on January 27, 2021.
“After years of silence about Kruger National Park rhino populations from South Africa’s Ministry of Forestry & Fisheries & Environmental Affairs,” Africa Geographic said, “we can now confirm” that the park populations “have plummeted to an estimated 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos, down from 10,621 white rhinos in 2011 and 415 black rhinos in 2013, when the numbers were last disclosed.
“Recent updates claimed progress in the war against poaching on the grounds that the volume of rhinos being poached per year has reduced recently,” Africa Geographic continued.
Fewer rhinos = less poaching
“This population update suggests that the population reduction is a significant factor contributing toward lower poaching volumes,” Africa Geographic concluded.
Rhino poaching exploded out of control in South Africa in 2008, especially on hunting ranches. More than 1,000 rhinos have been poached per year ever since.
The global rhino population, all species combined, is now down to about 29,000, according to the International Rhino Foundation. About 5% of the surviving rhinos are in Kenya, where trophy hunting was banned in 1977 and rhinos are intensively protected, both by the Kenya Wildlife Service in the Kenyan national parks and by nonprofit conservancies.
But the rhino news from Kenya has been even less encouraging in recent years than the news from South Africa.
How to breed rhinos who can’t get pregnant?
Summarized Megan Mayhew Bergman for Science on January 14, 2021, “There are no longer any living northern white rhino males after the beloved Sudan,” a resident of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, “was humanely euthanized at the advanced age of 45 in 2018.”
Two female northern white rhinos remain, Megan Mayhew Bergman continued, but “In 2014, scientists discovered that 20-year-old Fatu cannot conceive naturally, and recently that her mother Najin has a large tumor in her abdomen next to her left ovary, potentially compromising the egg harvesting process. Najin’s hind legs are weak and veterinarians believe a pregnancy – 16 months of depleted resources for the mother and a 200-pound baby – would cause debilitating stress.”
The Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, has been trying to use advanced genetic technology to develop a way to recover northern white rhinos.
Frozen sperm from deceased males & surrogate mothers
On January 14, 2021, the institute announced that, “In December 2020, two new northern white rhino embryos were produced,” beginning with a successful collection of 14 unfertilized rhino eggs from Fatu, the younger female northern white rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
“After immediate transportation across continents, the embryos were created at Avantea laboratory in Italy,” the announcement continued. “They were cryopreserved on Christmas Eve and increase the total number of embryos produced so far to five. This nourishes the hope that despite challenges and delays caused by COVID-19, the northern white rhino can still be saved.
“This is being attempted,” the Leibniz Institute explained, “using frozen sperm from deceased males in order to create viable northern white rhino embryos. In the near future, the embryos will be transferred into southern white rhino surrogate mothers to create northern white rhino offspring.”
Liquid nitrogen preserves the gene pool
Project team leader Thomas Hildebrandt predicted that the Leibniz Institute and partner organizations, including the Kenya Wildlife Service, will “generate a northern white rhino calf in the next two to three years.”
Meanwhile, the Leibniz Institute said, “The embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen, along with the three embryos from previous procedures.
“Unfortunately,” the Leibniz Institute acknowledged, “no oocytes were retrieved from Najin, who is Fatu’s mother. Previously, collecting oocytes from Najin was successful, but no embryos were created from her egg cells.”
This leaves the northern white rhino gene pool perilously narrow.
That consideration in turn raises the question of whether undertaking heroic measures to try to save the northern white rhino subspecies even makes sense, when closely related southern white rhinos need only adequate protection from poaching to fill any safe and appropriate habitat niches by natural means.
Vasectomizing the stud
“In December 2020, the team also started the next phase of the ambitious project – the preparations of the transfer of the embryos into southern white rhino females,” the Leibniz Institute announcement continued.
“For this purpose, a southern white rhino bull was transferred from Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in November 2020. This bull has fathered several offspring and is thus considered a proven breeder,” the Leibniz Institute said.
“At Ol Pejeta, he was sterilized by the BioRescue team, a subset of the Leibniz Institute staff, “with a minimally invasive non-surgical procedure using state-of-the-art equipment.
“As a sterilized bull,” the Leibniz Institute hopes, “he will reliably indicate through his behavior the reproductive cycle of potential surrogate mothers without the risk of impregnating them.”
Perhaps only in the paradoxical world of rhino conservation, where shooting rhinos dead is also widely accepted as a conservation measure, could vasectomizing a successful stud be billed as a step toward successful reproduction.