Hunters offer hope for preservation Collaboration: When a rhino is hunted in South Africa, scientists have a chance to build their bank of genetic material and preserve an endangered species.

June 15, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PILANDABA, South Africa -- One day this week, a big game hunter will pay $20,000 to hunt and kill a white rhinoceros on the Pilanesberg game reserve near here, bagging himself a wildlife trophy and -- believe it or not -- helping to protect the species.

As soon as the rhino -- one of 45 allowed to be hunted in South Africa yearly -- is dead, scientists from the privately funded Wildlife Breeding Research Center will collect the sperm or eggs from its body in an effort to prevent the future extinction of the species.

It is a bizarre, but necessary, interplay between life and death in an era when the population growth of humans is pushing ever more species to the brink of disappearance.

The white rhino, of which there are 7,000 in South Africa, is not itself currently endangered. But research on the storage and use of its reproductive cells for breeding future animals artificially could point the way to saving the genetically similar black rhino, which is seriously threatened with extinction.

Only 2,000 black rhinos are known to exist in the world, and hunting them is forbidden. They are in widely dispersed groups with ever-narrowing gene pools, a condition technically termed "the extinction vortex."

A report presented last week to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Zimbabwe warned that funding for rhino conservation was inadequate. Only South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe have programs to reinvest tourist and hunting dollars into rhino conservation, said the report by Traffic, a wildlife monitoring program.

The techniques for the artificial breeding of rhinos have not been refined. And transporting rhinos from one area to another to replenish the gene pool is expensive, and dangerous to both the animal and its handlers. A white rhino can weigh up to two tons, a black rhino up to half that.

(The difference between the two is not their color. The "white" is a phonetic version of the Afrikaans word meaning wide, referring to the broad, square jaw of the "white" rhino, which is a grass grazer. The black rhino grazes on bushes and has a smaller, mobile lip).

There are 90 black rhinos in the United States, a valuable resource for broadening the gene pool here.

"The American black rhino have got to be linked to Africa somehow," says Paul Bartels, director of the Wildlife Breeding Research Center here.

But rather than transport the animals, he says, it would be much easier to transport frozen sperm or eggs for artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization.

"You could have a liquid nitrogen file with 25 rhinos -- 500 even -- and carry it on a plane," says Bartels. "And a guy could bring them over -- one guy."

A challenge to science

But the rhino presents a big challenge to reproductive science, not only because of its sheer size but also because of its rarity.

"To actually get sperm from a rhino is very difficult at this stage," says Bartels, whose laboratory last week contained sperm from only one rhino. "You can't just walk up to a rhino. Yes, there will be a way to collect [sperm and eggs from live rhinos], but you have to have the technology. That's what we are all about."

In the meantime, scientists here have to rely on harvesting genetic material from dead animals. Bartels relies on dead animals from zoos and game parks and also on the "trophies" of big game hunters, who are allowed to kill quotas of various animals for habitat conservation and herd control.

"We have contacts with the hunters, and when they take an animal out, they let us know," says Bartels.

So one day this week, when the big game hunter gets his money's worth and a rhino lies dead, Bartels' team will go about their work for posterity.

"That material for us is very important," says Bartels. "The white rhino has been saved. The reason we want to get hold of that sperm is to develop a process for [artificially reproducing] the black rhino."

He says that "hundreds of hurdles" are in the way of perfecting the storage and use of rhino sperm and eggs, but he predicted that the first baby rhino conceived through artificial insemination would be born within two years.

Several institutions in the United States have succeeded in scientifically assisting the reproduction of zoo animals -- though not the rhino -- but the breeding research station here deals with wild animals as well as those in captivity.

"In a number of ways we have to catch up," says Bartels, whose research center is entirely financed by private contributions. "But in certain ways we are ahead."

The budget for all this is a meager $200,000 a year, but the South African atomic energy authority provides him with office and lab space, and an American computer company, AST of California, has donated a record system.

"Animals act pretty well on their own," he says. "They don't need technology. But what humans have done is split up the animal populations [by taking their habitat]. Now we have to use appropriate technology to bring all those populations together."

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