Czech zoo at centre of controversial last bid to save endangered rhino from extinction

Photo: CTK

A Czech zoo is at the centre of what is probably the last chance to save an endangered African rhino. The species is believed to have become extinct in the wild. But the project to return four animals to their natural environment has created controversy.

The Dvůr Králové zoo has taken the bold step of making what is likely to be the last bid of trying to save the Northern White Rhino. It is believed to have been hunted to extinction in the wild and only a handful survive in captivity. Pavel Moucha is curator of the Czech zoo.

“We call this project ‘Last chance for the Northern White Rhino’ because there are probably only eight rhinos in captivity and none in the natural environment”

Photo: CTK
The famous Czech zoo plans on Saturday to ship out half of the world’s known population of Northern White Rhinos — four rhinos, two males and two females. Dvůr Králové has another two and so has San Diego Zoo in the United States.

Although the Czech zoo has established a worldwide reputation for breeding in captivity, the results with the Northern White have been disappointing. Mr Moucha again.

“The main problem is that we have only produced a few babies. We have kept this sub species in our zoo for more than 30 years. But we have bred only five babies during that time. Because it is a problem with these animals socialising in captivity. We plan to transport the rhinos to their natural environment and we suppose they will reproduce better than in captivity.”

Basically, the female rhinos have low hormone levels in captivity. They are not able to turn on the males. Even if they do achieve this they are not able to become pregnant.

Photo: CTK
It is believed that in the wild the nine-year and 25-year-old females will act more naturally. For the older female, the biological clock is running down with the possibility of producing only three or four young if everything goes well.

The Czech zoo is also working on another project involving embryo transplants to save the Northern White but this is still at a more or less theoretical level with no clear indications that it can succeed.

But the plans to fly the four rhinos out to a well protected reserve in Kenya have stirred up controversy. The European Association for Zoos and Aquaria has previously described it as a costly and high risk path which should be investigated in more detail. It said the rhinos flown out from the Czech Republic will have a high likelihood of contracting local diseases with the stress from the journey making them even more susceptible. It has more recently posed questions about the liklihood of cross breeding with local rhinos.

Photo: CTK
But Mr Moucha insists that the Kenya transfer is about the only hope for the species.

“A huge group of people do not agree with this project but we have to decide to do something because we have kept these rhinos more than 30 years here and tried everything what is possible to do in captivity. We had some success but not a lot. We want to do something now for the rhinos and it is our decision to do this.”