Dvůr Králové zoo not ready to give up the fight to save the Northern white rhino from extinction

Photo: Andrea Jiroušová / ZOO Dvůr Králové

Dvůr Králové zoo has started sawing off the horns of its rhinos in the wake of a tragic incident at a zoo in France where poachers killed a rhino for its horn. The zoo keeps the largest group of rhinos in Europe, runs a successful breeding program and is actively involved in efforts to save the Northern white rhino from extinction. I spoke to Jan Stejskal project coordinator at Dvůr Králové zoo and began by asking about the threat of poachers to the rhino herd.

Photo: Andrea Jiroušová / ZOO Dvůr Králové
“To understand the circumstances in which we are right now, I should say that already in 2013 the British police warned local zoos in Kent that their rhinos might be under threat from poachers. So, ever since then, we have been aware of a possible attack even on our zoo. There are various criminal gangs that operate in Europe and we know that as of 2010 there were a number of thefts from museums and various collections, I think there were more than 70 attempts to steal rhino horns from museums and other institutions, so we know there are criminal networks that operate in Europe and in this situation it is difficult to pretend that there is no threat to any zoo in Europe.”

So you are not taking any chances. How many rhinos will this concern?

“I am sorry, but I cannot tell you the exact number of rhinos that are to be dehorned, but we will do it to all the rhinos where we regard it as necessary. For example we have a rhino called Natal who rubs his horn naturally so in his case it does not make sense to shorten it because it is short anyway. Or we have a rhino who is going to be shipped to another zoo and then we leave that decision to the given zoo, because if he were to be placed in a group of rhinos with horns it could cause behavioural problems for him to enter such a group.”

What does this dehorning process entail? I understand it can only be done to healthy animals….

“That’s right. If we take it from a health point of view, then for the rhino it is nothing serious because a horn is very similar to a nail or hair, so it is nothing if you cut it. But the rhinos are not calm or patient enough to allow such a procedure when they are fully conscious. So you have to sedate them. The procedure itself poses very little risk for a rhino and we do it regularly in our zoo.”

So there is no stress linked that might affect their wellbeing, their breeding or anything like that?

“Definitely not their breeding, but there might be behavioural consequences that have to be solved.”

What does that mean?

“We know there are criminal networks that operate in Europe and in this situation it is difficult to pretend that there is no threat to any zoo in Europe.”

“It means what I previously mentioned - that if you have a rhino without a horn and you put him in a group where the others have horns then they will be at an advantage if they fight for dominance. So if you want to dehorn rhinos you need to dehorn the whole group. Or else you would have to know your animals very well to be able to predict that they can withstand this even without a horn.”

And how big is your group of rhinos?

“Altogether we have 21 rhinos at present, four Southern white rhinos and seventeen black rhinos. ”

What happens to the horns when you cut them off? I understand they are stored outside the zoo’s premises…

“We do not keep them here. I am sorry, but I cannot say where they are kept. It is a safe place and we are considering what to do with them. One of the options is to burn them as we did in 2014 to bring awareness to the plight of rhinos.”

That’s right, that was an international campaign to protest against poaching and smuggling. Has the situation improved since then or has it got worse?

“It is difficult to say, because what you have to consider is demand in East Asia and I would say that awareness is higher in this part of the world but it is hard to get information as to whether consumption has decreased. At the moment, if you look at the numbers of rhinos that are poached in Africa and other parts of the world I would not say that consumption is lower, but I would say that the rise in poaching in recent years has dropped and is now being kept at a constant level and maybe is even slowly decreasing...but it is difficult for me to derive from this fact any conclusion about the level of consumption in East Asia.”

You have a successful rhino breeding program in Dvůr Kralové Zoo, how is it coming along? I believe you celebrated the birth of two rhinos last year?

Jan Stejskal,  photo: archive of Jan Stejskal
“We actually celebrated the birth of three baby rhinos last year. The last one was in November and it was something really special because it was a very small black rhino. They usually weigh around 35 kg at birth and this female baby rhino only weighed 17 kilos. She could not reach to suck from her mother so she had to be bottle-fed by our keepers and what was fantastic was that they were actually able to milk her mother, so she was bottle fed, but with milk from her mother and after about 10 days when she grew enough she could start suckling from her mother.”

That’s fantastic. So you won the fight for her life.

“Yes. Had it been in the wild she would not have survived.”

I believe that you are also part of an international program –you return rhinos to the wild, is that right?

“That’s right we returned one rhino to Mkomazi in Tanzania last year in June and six or seven months after the translocation we knew it was successful; the animal is in good form and doing well and Tony Fitzjohn who runs the rhino sanctuary in Mkomai is preparing her to be introduced to a male. He has a special section where he has two males and he is currently in the process of deciding to which of the two the rhino from our zoo should be introduced.”

So in general the project is proving successful?

“Definitely. It is one of the most successful –if not the most successful projects to establish a new population of rhinos in Tanzania.”

And you will continue with it?

“We will continue to support it. It is hard for me to say now if we will be sending another rhino, the sanctuary’s needs seem to be satisfied at the moment, but in December we visited Rwanda where they lost their last rhino in 2007 and there is a serious project that is supported by the government of Rwanda to bring rhinos back. There have been discussions between the Rwandan authorities and South African authorities and European zoos about the best way to establish a new population in the country and we – the Dvůr Kralové zoo - with our experience in Africa are strongly involved in these discussions. We hope that we can help to bring rhinos from more than one European zoo to Rwanda to start a new population of rhinos there.”

You have spearheaded international efforts to save the Northern white rhino from extinction. These efforts now appear to have come to a dead end – is there any hope at all?

“We are at a dead end with natural breeding, but there is still a chance through artificial techniques of reproduction and we have come far from where we were a year ago.”

“I have to say that I would not call it a dead end. The truth is that we are at a dead end with natural breeding but there is still a chance through artificial techniques of reproduction. And in the course of last year we have actually come pretty far from where we were a year ago. What we have to achieve now is to develop or produce an embryo in vitro. There are two ways to do that, one is by harvesting oocytes from live donors and there are still two Northern white rhino females that belong to Dvůr Kralové zoo, but are currently in Kenya in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and the other way would be through stem cell research. As regards the first way – harvesting oocytes – we have to optimize the procedure on the Southern white rhinos, close relatives of the Northern white rhino. For more than a year and a half we have been cooperating with European zoos, who provide their Southern white rhino females for our purposes. These females are not capable of reproduction any more, but they still cycle so it means that we are able to harvest oocytes. And just so you understand how difficult these attempts are just imagine that it is an animal that weighs two tons and you have to reach one and a half meters inside the body of the female rhino with a special tool. You have ultrasound at the end of this tool and a needle next to it and you try to aspirate a very, very small bubble that is, let us say, about 5 millimeters in diameter. You are operating next to the bladder and if you puncture it then the patient has a serious problem and could even die as a result. That is just to explain how the procedure works.”

So is this being done?

“It has been done. We have been cooperating with colleagues from Berlin and from Avantea Institute in Cremona and so far we have undertaken this procedure in 12 females in European zoos and there were no adverse health consequences. So that was very successful, we harvested a number of oocytes that were sent to Avantea in Cremona and we have achieved an initial stage of this in vitro embryo. We still do not have a fully-grown embryo that we could transfer to a surrogate Southern white rhino mother but we are well on the way and we have proceeded quite far from where we were last year.”

So what happens next?

Photo: Andrea Jiroušová / ZOO Dvůr Králové
“We have to achieve a fully-grown embryo that could be put into a surrogate mother. We are now working with Southern white rhinos and when we are sure that we have optimized the process of harvesting oocytes and developing an embryo than we would go to Ol Pejeta where the last two females of the Northern white rhino are held –they were both born in Dvůr Kralové – and try to harvest oocytes from the females. We would most likely take these oocytes back to Europe because for these experiments you need to have a well-equipped laboratory and we are not sure we would be able to set it up in Kenya, so right now we think it would be safer to take the oocytes to a laboratory in Italy, but all this still has to be decided.”

And when could this take place?

“I hope it could take place before the end of this year and we would try to create an embryo from the oocytes harvested in Ol Pejeta but that does not mean we would immediately place it into a surrogate mother. The thing is that if you harvest oocytes –or let us say eggs – it is very difficult to freeze them because it is a very large cell and the chances are high you would destroy it during the freezing process. On the other hand, embryos are easier to freeze so if we could manage to create a Northern white rhino embryo we could either immediately put it into a surrogate mother or we could freeze it. So if later this year we are able to harvest oocytes and create embryos at least part of them would be frozen for use later.”

How many Northern white rhinos are left –two?

“There are three Northern white rhinos left in the world. All of them live in Ol Pejeta. One of them is Sudan – a very old male, over 40 and frankly we do not expect him to live long, with the two females the outlooks are better but they are his daughter and granddaughter, one is twenty-six and the other is seventeen years old. Both are cycling, but both are incapable of natural reproduction.”

And there are none left in the wild?

“There are none left in the wild. I think the last Northern white rhino was spotted in the wild in 2007 so that’s about ten years ago.”

So you have two females. What are the chances for the Northern white rhino?

Photo: Jana Myslivečková
“We have only three living animals, but we have samples of twelve animals, so if I come back to what I explained previously about the second way of achieving embryo in vitro – I mean by stem cell research – then if we managed to succeed with this course, it would give us a good starting point. Because if you could develop stem cells from each of the specimens then, hopefully, in a few years you could even develop reproduction cells through the stem cells and in such a case we could work with twelve specimens and the genetic pool would be wide enough to sustain the population. We know from examples in the past –for example with the European bison – that the animals can be saved even from such small numbers.”

Mr. Stejskal, good luck with the program.

“Thank you for your interest and I hope that next time we speak I will have good news.”