By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 15 May 2013
On the 1st May last week, something incredibly exciting happened. Save the Rhino International deemed UCL worthy enough (for the second year running I might add), to host the unfathomably important Rhino May Day- the must-be-at yearly event for rhino conservationists and enthusiasts. It is essentially for discussing the issues facing the rhino’s continued existence on the planet, from large-scale issues such as poaching for rhino horn, down to programme specific problems ‘in the field’. The purpose of the charity Save the Rhino is to fundraise in order to provide support for 17 rhino programmes in Africa and Asia, and Rhino May Day was an opportunity to find out how some of these projects were getting along. It also provided an important tangent into the auctioning of rhino horns and a lesson on how to take a full grown white rhino for a walk.
The day began with a mixture of lectures that ranged from ‘Here’s a rhino I saved earlier’, through heart-breaking yet seemingly inevitable stories of the repercussions of poaching, with some amazing footage from the BBC thrown for lots of ooohs and ahhhs. Have you ever seen a rhino fly? Jo Scofield has, and now thanks to her and the BBC Natural World, so has an auditorium of suitably impressed rhinoceros lovers.
One of the conservation programmes in Kenya was represented at the event by Michael Dyer, the Managing Director no less. He gave recounted a brilliantly red-tape-less anecdote of their solution to when a vagabond rhino wander into an area at an unsuitable point in time. After some ums and ahs, they decided the best course of action was to treat her like the lady she was and use the art of gentle persuasion to… well, get rid of her. They lightly sedated her so that she was up and about but very sleepy and a little disoriented. They then blindfolded her to minimise spooking, tied a rope around her neck, and led her gently back to her habitat as easily as if they were taking a small puppy for a walk. Brilliant.
In a side-splittingly entertaining talk by John Payne from the Borneo Rhino Alliance, mostly we discovered that if you are important enough and entertaining enough, you can go off on as many rhino tangents as you like and still keep the audience captivated. In what was definitely the most thought-provoking talk of the day for me, John explained that it *may* just be the case that even if mankind disappeared today, thus severely easing the habitat destruction and poaching rates, the Sumatran rhino may well still go extinct. I would assume we all know that to continue your species, you need to produce baby versions of yourself, which grow up and take over when you pass on. It seems that Sumatran rhinos may not have worked this out. Here is the evidence:
1) If you put two Sumatran rhinos together (mm, mf, ff) they will fight. To the death if they so choose. Except for about two magical days of non-legally-recognised matrimonial bliss, only occurring about once every 22-28 days.
2) Evidence suggests that male Sumatran rhinos in general have a low sperm count
3) Even if they had an epic sperm count, over 50% of Sumatran rhino females appear to have severe reproductive tract pathologies. The cysts that build up in the female’s internal organs making reproduction difficult is, ironically, caused by a lack of pregnancies. Ahh nature, thou art a fickle menace.
I would like to spend my entire day writing you a stupendously long blog on everything we heard and learnt at Rhino May Day but I’d probably get in trouble with my Manager for not doing any other work (plus technically I don’t think a piece of writing qualifies as a blog any longer when it is a a trillion billion words long). Just before I wrap up though, boosting the informational corner of the Javan rhino was Save the Rhino’s very own director Cathy Dean. Check this out for a stop in your tracks what-has-mankind-reduced-the-world-to fact:
Jeepers. That seems like enough to make anyone get out their chequebook and save some species.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology