Earlier this month, the Buffalo and Cincinnati Zoos made history when an Indian rhino was born to a father who had been dead for ten years. Is this the future of conservation?
Once upon a time, a male Indian rhino named Jimmy died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2004. Before he died, researchers at the zoo's Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) retrieved some samples of his sperm. For the next decade, those samples were stored at -320°F (-195°C) in CREW's awesomely named CryoBioBank. For comparison, that's only slightly warmer than the average temperature of the planet Uranus.
Meanwhile, Tashi was a 17 year old female Indian rhino who lived at the Buffalo Zoo. She'd already had two calves of her own, conceived through the usual route, in 2004 and in 2008. But her mate passed away, and the Buffalo Zoo's new male was still sexually immature. The problem, for rhinos, is that long intervals between pregnancies can sometimes lead to infertility. In other words, female rhinos must "use it" or "lose it." If Tashi was to continue bear young - there are fewer than 3000 Indian rhinos alive today, so every calf is important for the species' survival - then the Buffalo Zoo would have to find a way to get her pregnant. That's when they reached out to the Cincinnati Zoo's CryoBioBank.
Jimmy had never successfully bred in his lifetime, so thawing out his frozen sperm and using it to artificially inseminate Tashi seemed like a great way to re-introduce a genetic line that would otherwise have disappeared from the species.
Gestation in Indian rhinos lasts a long time: 15-16 months. Throughout that time, Tashi was monitored by the Buffalo Zoo's veterinary staff. On June 5 at 3:30pm, she gave birth to a healthy female calf, who weighed 144 pounds. She's been named Monica.
Above: The baby rhino, together with Buffalo Zoo's lead rhino keeper Joe Hauser and CREW's Reproductive Physiologist Dr. Monica Stoops. The rhino was named after Dr. Stoops, who has dedicated her career to rhino conservation.
The Cincinnati Zoo explains on their blog:
Scientifically speaking, by producing offspring from non- or under-represented individuals, CREW is helping to ensure a genetically healthy captive population of Indian rhinos exists in the future. This is a [procedure] that could be necessary for thousands of species across the globe as habitat loss, poaching, and population fragmentation (among other reasons) threaten many with extinction.
Tashi's calf demonstrates that [artificial insemination] is a repeatable and valuable tool to help manage the captive Indian rhino population. With only 59 Indian rhinos in captivity in North America and approximately 2,500 remaining in the wild, being able to successfully introduce genetics that are non or under-represented in the population is critical to maintaining the genetic diversity necessary to keep a population healthy and self-sustaining.
In a world faced by the so-called "sixth extinction," wildlife conservation might increasingly tell a new sort of love story.