Sep 22

It’s World Rhino Day today. To celebrate and discuss, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls (Deputy Keeper of Natural History of the Horniman Museum and Gardens) shares her insider knowledge and experience in rhinoceros conservation, after her recent return from the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia.

The Sumatran rhino’s problems began the moment someone, a name now lost to history, first decided rhino horn should be used as a medicinal ingredient. This idea was passed down from generation to generation until, over 2,000 years later, the use of rhino horn is deeply ingrained in people’s minds and cultures. These ancient remedies, now commonly referred as ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’, are still used today, primarily in China and Vietnam. Contrary to popular western belief, rhino horn is not (ironically- until very recently) used as an aphrodisiac, but rather to treat a large number of ailments including fever, hallucinations, and headaches.

Rhino horn is largely made of keratin, however; and you’d feel just as better if you ground up and swallowed your own fingernails. Nevertheless, hunting these animals for their horns decimated Sumatran rhino populations throughout Southeast Asia and, as the issue of habitat loss also began to raise its ugly head, the combined impact of these two sustained pressures led to the collapse of wild populations. As a benchmark; in the 1980s it was estimated there were around 1,000 Sumatran rhinos in the wild. In 2017, that number is estimated to be around 100.

Sumatran rhinoceros © Gareth Goldthorpe

Until recently, these remaining wild populations were split between Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, there are now only two known individuals of the Bornean rhino left (a different subspecies), which live in a private research facility in Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia. On a positive note, these two remaining individuals are a male and female; generally accepted as the two primary requirements of a breeding programme. However, even if intensive breeding of their would-be sibling-offspring wasn’t an evolutionary no-no, in a cruel twist of fate Sumatran rhinos that haven’t produced offspring by a certain age often develop cysts in the uterus and can become unable to conceive anyway. As is the case for Iman, the last known remaining female Bornean rhino.

The largest known wild Sumatran rhino populations, holding on with all 12 toes in Indonesia, are now restricted to three national parks, all on the island of Sumatra. Having separate populations is good for genetic diversity, and if a natural disaster or disease should wipe out one population then the species will still persist due to those that were isolated from it. If, for example, a large tsunami hit the northern edge of Java (heaven forbid) where Ujung Kulon National Park is located, it could well wipe out the entire Javan rhino species, as there are no other populations anywhere in the world. On the other hand, if numbers of Sumatran rhino are so thin in each of the three parks that male and female rhinos won’t find each other, then short of joining Sudan on Tinder, making babies in the wild becomes exceptionally difficult, meaning perhaps bringing them together is the better option. Faced with this unenviable quandary, a lot of conservationists feel the answer is in a captive breeding programme with the aim of repopulating the wild habitat with captive-born rhinos.

The dense habitat preferred by the Sumatran rhinoceros is difficult for conservationists to penetrate in search of the elusive species. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Scientists find the key

The first known record of a Sumatran rhino to be born in captivity was in Calcutta, India in 1889. Although the specific details are irritatingly lost to history, rhino experts seem to feel there is enough evidence to substantiate the story. Nearly 100 years after India perhaps unintentionally made rhino history, the need for a captive breeding programme became urgent and so between 1984 and 1996, 40 of the approximately 1,000 Sumatran rhinos persisting in the wild at the time were captured (from both Indonesia and Malaysia) to form a worldwide collaborative captive breeding programme. The wild-caught rhinos were split up between Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the United States, and the UK who all tried their hand at breeding these enigmatic animals.

Thirteen years later, the pitter patter of tiny rhino feet was still absent from zookeepers’ ears and so in 1997 scientists at Cincinnati Zoo led by Dr Terri Roth (Vice President of Conservation and Science, and Director of the Centre for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife; CREW) turned to endocrinology and ultrasonography. A long and complicated story of science, frustration, grumpy rhinos, and no mating unravelled until Dr Roth and her team finally discovered that Sumatran rhinos are in fact induced ovulators. This means that a female won’t come into oestrus until she has had ‘special time’ with a male, after which, she obviously needs to gain in order to conceive. This was an exceptional breakthrough, and one that resulted in the first Sumatran rhino born in captivity in 112 years when Ipuh, one of the last three rhinos surviving from the original project initiated in 1984, successfully mated with a female called Emi, and with that a heavy hairy miracle was born. With all of their new found expertise in rhino romance, the CREW team managed to help Ipuh and Emi produce two more babies- a female called Suci in 2004, and a male called Harapan in 2007.

Born in 2001 at Cincinnati Zoo, Andalas was the first Sumatran rhinoceros born in captivity in 112 years and as such, represented a huge breakthrough for his species. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Meanwhile in Indonesia

As scientists in Cincinnati were working on unravelling the mysteries of the Sumatran rhino’s reproductive requirements, on the other side of the world the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary was completed in Sumatra, Indonesia, and in 1998 opened its doors to its first residents; two females, Dusun and Bina, and one male, Torgamba. Two more females, Ratu and Rosa, arrived in 2005. Yet despite being spoilt for choice on the dating scene, Torgamba sadly wasn’t up to the task and the breeding programme appeared to be failing.

Fortunately for Sumatran rhinos, in 2007 Dr Roth and her rhino specialist team gave the programme’s first born male, Emi and Ipuh’s first calf Andalas – now six years old, to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in a bid to save the day. It turned out to be worth their heartache as in 2012 Andalas became a first-time father and the number of Sumatran rhinos in the world went up by another one. One is a significant number when there are so few remaining, and Andatu, Andalas’s son, made history when he became the first baby rhino born at the SRS.

Andalas is obviously enjoying his new life as chief baby-maker as he and his ‘partner’, Ratu, successfully bred again and in 2016 had a girl called Delilah. By 2014, Harapan (Andalas’s younger brother, born at Cincinnati Zoo) became the only Sumatran remaining outside of Indonesia and Malaysia and so the Cincinnati team decided to let him follow in his brother’s footsteps and sent him too, to the SRS in Indonesia.

Now five years old, Andatu was the first rhinoceros born at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia. His parents are Cincinnati Zoo-born male Andalas, and wild-caught female Ratu. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

The future

Hunting and habitat loss have decimated wild numbers of rhinos to a point where physiology is now their main problem (although the aforementioned issues also persist). The need for induced ovulation, as well as the fact that cysts can develop in the uterus if females remain unmated, both mean that with so few rhinos in the wild, many females are likely to become unable to conceive. The stability of wild Sumatran rhino populations remains in question and captive breeding programmes used to boost numbers in the wild seem to be the most viable way of increasing their numbers to a level where they’ll regularly be able to breed naturally in the wild again.

In 2017, now armed with an entire crash (the official, not to mention delightful, collective noun for rhinos) including both males and females, the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary is on a path paved with hope and optimism. Andalas and his rhino team are undoubtedly working hard to produce more bundles of joy, and with the high levels of expertise and dedication witnessed first-hand at the SRS, there is definitely hope for the Sumatran rhino yet.

Although each animal lives semi-wild in its own 10-20km2 enclosure of primary forest habitat, their health is monitored daily by their keepers. Here Harapan is having his temperature taken as he nonchalantly hoovers up some carrots. © E-L Nicholls by permission of International Rhino Foundation/Yayasan Badak Indonesia Foundation

Find out more about the Sumatran rhinoceros on Arkive

Visit the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary 

Follow Dr Nicholls on Twitter

 

May 18

Daniel Craven is Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust‘s Volunteer Manager, based at Jersey Zoo since 2001. A former professional footballer, Daniel is a lover of travel, animals and conservation. Durrell’s Underdogs is his first film and was made with the fantastic team of Dean Maryon, Bex Bohea, Shaz Syed and Marc Mitchell. It is an official selection at the 2017 Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York. This is his story.

Daniel Craven © Craig Jones

Daniel Craven © Craig Jones

My journey to India to make a film about the smallest and rarest pig in the world is one I will never forget. It was a wild ride but nothing compared to the epic journey of survival the pygmy hog, an animal once thought to be extinct, has had to go through.

‘Durrell’s Underhogs’ traces the origins of Gerald Durrell and ‘The Durrells’, in India, before joining up with conservationists Durrell inspired and who today are giving the pygmy hog a fighting chance. My journey started in Jamshedpur where Gerald was born. There I discovered more about the life of Gerald’s father, Lawrence Durrell, an ambitious and gifted civil engineer who ran the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway before working for TATA steel, as I learned more about his father it became clearer where Gerald’s drive to save species from extinction came from.

Pygmy hog © Craig Jones

The ‘underhog’ is fighting for survival © Craig Jones

The pygmy hog is one of the rarest animals in the world. It’s a typical Durrell project – a so-called “little brown job”.

These nest building bullet shaped mini pigs struggle for survival alongside the big mega fauna of tigers, rhinos and elephants that share its habitat and hog the limelight. Raising awareness, conservation support and funding to save this little hog is tough. It’s a real “under-hog”.

Pygmy hogs build and live in nests made of the grasses found in their vulnerable grassland habitat © Craig Jones

Pygmy hogs build and live in nests made of the grasses found in their vulnerable grassland habitat © Craig Jones

The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) has been running since 1996 and is made up of a team of partners; Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, IUCN SSC Pigs Peccaries and Hippos Specialist Group, Ecosystems India, Government of Assam, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.

Arriving at the PHCP centre in Guwahati, Assam was fantastic. It’s one of the only places in the world to see pygmy hogs.

Hogs are bred at the centre to be released into the wild. It’s like a kindergarten for baby hogs with hoglets learning the basics from their mothers and siblings in a controlled, supportive and natural environment.

Mother and hoglet © Craig Jones

Mother and hoglet © Craig Jones

The second stage is more like being at university. Support is gradually taken away from the older hogs and they are expected to stand on their own four feet! This environment is similar to the wild areas where they will be released. Before graduating, the hogs must know how to feed themselves on insects, roots and tubers, similar to what they would seek out in the wild.

Baby hogs or hoglets are about the size of a computer mouse with legs! © Craig Jones

Baby hogs or hoglets are about the size of a computer mouse with legs! © Craig Jones

The project team, keepers and support staff that have been running the programme for the last 20 years are a breed apart. They share the same unwavering commitment to conservation as Gerald Durrell. They’re proud of the work they are undertaking to save a species from extinction. And step by step, they’re winning that battle. Massive restoration work has been done in Barnardi Wildlife Sanctuary to revive an area of grassland habitat where they once roamed. This beautiful area bordering Bhutan is the very park where the hogs were rediscovered in 1971 and can once again call their home.

The Durrell team enjoy a light moment during the catch-up and transportation of the hogs © Craig Jones

The Durrell team enjoy a light moment during the catch-up and transportation of the hogs © Craig Jones

Witnessing the 100th hog released back into Bornadi was a great example of how scientific evidence together with dedication, planning and hard work can pay off.

Pygmy hogs © Craig Jones

Pygmy hogs © Craig Jones

Durrell experts know how to save this species and they are doing it with the continued support of people who care about this remarkable little creature, thanks to them this “Under-hog” species has a fighting chance. If you would like to give pygmy hogs a helping hand, please consider donating to Durrell or becoming a member.  The documentary ‘Durrell’s Underhogs’ can be viewed through the Durrell website www.durrell.org/underhogs

To watch Durrell’s Underhogs film, visit their website

Find out more about pygmy hogs on their Arkive species profile

 

Apr 19

Yesterday Google introduced a brand-new version of Google Earth—on the web and Android. Joining up with some of the world’s leading storytellers, scientists and non-profits and after two years in the making, planet earth has been brought to life with Voyager, a showcase of interactive guided tours.

Wildscreen is thrilled to announce that it too is part of the journey, sharing stories of hundreds of endangered animals both on land and in our oceans, through a new breathtaking Arkive layer.

Arkive layer on Google Earth

Through Voyager, Arkive – the world’s leading online encyclopaedia about the natural world – is brought to life. Each placemark contains an amazing photo of the species, along with key information about its biology, where it is found and what threats it faces.

Lucie Muir, Wildscreen CEO said: “At Wildscreen we believe that visual storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have to share the beauty, but most importantly, the fragility of our natural world. Through our partnership with Google Earth we are now able to share the stories of hundreds of species with millions of people around the world, immersing them in nature and inspiring them to do something to help.

Not only can explorers discover hundreds of weird and wonderful species and where they live but they can also dive in deeper by continuing their journey on the Arkive website itself. Arkive (www.arkive.org) is packed full with over 16,000 in-depth species fact files, illustrated with over 100,000 of the best wildlife films and photos, contributed by more than 7,500 of the world’s leading filmmakers, photographers and scientists. There’s also curriculum-linked education resources, activities and topic pages exploring some of the key conservation issues facing the world’s wild things and wild places.

Go explore the wild here.

 

Apr 4

Here at Arkive, we’re really excited about our Friday night TV viewing this week! BBC2 will be airing Hotel Armadillo, narrated by Sir David Attenborough sixty years after he first introduced British TV viewers to an armadillo (see picture below!).

There are 20 known armadillo species, of which all but one is found in Latin America.  The name ‘armadillo’ comes from a Spanish word meaning ‘little armoured one’ – a reference to the bony plates which, uniquely among mammals, cover the back, head, legs, and tail of species within this distinctive family. Hotel Armadillo focuses on the giant armadillo, a creature so few people have ever seen in the wild that some describe it as a ghost species.

The challenge in filming is not simply that this animal is rare, solitary, shy, and nocturnal, but it also spends three-quarters of its time hidden underground in six-metre-deep burrows dotted across a wetland as big as England – Brazil’s Pantanal.

Thanks to the commitment, patience and clever camera set-ups of a team led by Dr Arnaud Desbiez, a conservation biologist with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and a UK film crew, the long-held secrets of giant armadillo life are beginning to unfold. Some of these secrets have even surprised the experts!

The show sheds fresh light on how the giant armadillo, an ecosystem engineer, is crucial to the health of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, and the many other species that call it home. Among the many revelatory sequences is the first television footage of a giant armadillo newborn, images of what happens inside and around their burrows and unique evidence of just how many other Pantanal species check into the animal’s hideaways for food and lodgings.

During the 2 year making of the film, a total of 80 different guests/diners were recorded within the hideaways of armadillos – hence the name ‘Hotel Armadillo’! Just a few of these species include:

Azara’s agouti, a rodent nicknamed the ‘jungle gardener’ due to its constant digging for buried caches of nuts and seeds, which tills the earth and encourages new plant growth

Crab-eating fox, not a true fox and not fussy about only eating crabs

Giant anteater, a cousin of the giant armadillo

Ocelot, related to leopards and once hunted almost to extinction due to demand for its fur

Collared anteater, a mostly tree-dwelling anteater with a partially prehensile tail

Tayra, a metre-long relative of weasels

Another surprise inclusion in the documentary is aerial footage of the spectacular scenery found within the 140,000 km sq Pantanal ecoysystem.  The aerial shots were feared lost at one point, after the drone which shot them dropped into extremely deep caiman, stingray and piranha-infested water. But the plucky crew eventually managed to retrieve it and found the footage intact despite the drone’s four-hour-long submersion!

Viewers will never have seen giant armadillos filmed like this before. Rare, solitary, living mostly underground in very remote habitat and emerging only at night makes them extremely challenging to find, let alone film – so much so that even David Attenborough, our narrator, still yearns to see one in the wild despite embarking on the quest 60 years ago!”  – Justin Purefoy, Hotel Armadillo’s producer-director-cameraman

At the voiceover recording, Sir David recalled to Maramedia, the production company who filmed Hotel Armadillo, his first encounters with the armadillo family.

In the middle of the 1950s I went off to Paraguay… (where)… there are all kinds of armadillos – at least half a dozen different species.  The little three-banded was a charming little thing – running away on its tiptoes and when you catch them you can pick them up like little oranges and put them in a bag. But what used to happen was that the armadillo would suddenly open up… (and)… start trotting and you would see the bag rolling across the landscape – a very entertaining sight. Not very responsible.  It isn’t something that you ought to do these days, but years ago that was what zoos did.

Hotel Armadillo will be aired in the UK at 9 pm on Friday 7th April 2017 on BBC2 as part of the BBC Natural World series, and shortly after on PBS the USA.

Discover more of Brazil’s ecosystems and species on Arkive

We interviewed Arnaud Desbiez for our Spotlight on Whitley Award winners blog in 2015, check it out here

Feb 14

Today the dingo has been crowned the World’s Favourite Unloved Species, after two weeks of voting and some fierce competition. Here Bret Charman discusses his experiences with photographing this misunderstood yet beautiful species.

The world’s wild dog species, for the most part, are on a downward spiral – none more so than the iconic dingo of Australia. Unlike the profile of many of the world’s apex predators, many people still see the dingo as a pest species, particularly by some livestock farmers in the outback, and as such, there is little in the way of protection for this vital predator. Perceptions are starting to change though, as many have started to realise the species’ importance in managing the populations of rabbits, kangaroos and even feral cats.

Award-winning wildlife photographer Bret Charman spent 10 months exploring the south and east of Australia, getting up close and personal to these fascinating predators.

In 2014/15 I was incredibly lucky to spend 10 months exploring a remarkable country – Australia. The wildlife here is unlike anywhere else on earth, uniquely adapted to the diverse habitats that make up the Australian wilderness. Deep down, I have always had a love affair with the world’s canids and the dingo was a species I was desperate to see.

Like any of the world’s apex predators, there are fantastical stories about the dingo and their blood-thirsty habits. Headlines such as 6-year-old escaped by the bare buttocks from a dingo attack’, give an impression of a savage, mindless predator out to get the average person. However, when you dig a little deeper you realise that it is rarely the dingo that is to blame, and actually these wild dogs are an incredibly intelligent, resourceful and adaptable species.

I am happy tell you I have had multiple close encounters with wild dingoes, and I never once felt in danger or lost any item of clothing in the process. In fact, just like a domestic dog, dingoes give incredibly clear signals as to how they are feeling and are much more afraid of people than many would have us believe.

My first experience was on the western coastline of Fraser Island, I knew there were dingoes in the area as I had seen their tracks around a washed up turtle carcass. Setting off down the beach, following these tracks, I sighted a small group of dogs on the water’s edge around 300 yards away. I got low down so as not to spook them, but my efforts were in vain as they immediately clocked me and disappeared into the island’s forested hills. I thought I had lost the moment, annoyed at myself for disturbing them – as a wildlife photographer my job is to capture striking images but not directly affect the subject’s behaviour.

I turned my attention to the setting sun and after a few minutes I had that primeval feeling … I was being watched. I turned around and looked up towards the top of a sandy bluff. There were the three dingoes I had sighted only 20 minutes before, all three watching me intently before suddenly two individuals headed off into the forest. One lone dog remained and watched me … we both seemed to be fascinated by the other’s presence. Neither of us made any attempt to approach each other, we simply sat and watched one another for around 5 minutes (and in my case managed to capture a few images) before we both knew it was time to head home. I have never had an experience with a predator in the same way before. Neither the dingo, or myself, were afraid of one another, there was simply a mutual respect. There was a silent understanding that if we stayed put, we were both comfortable in each other’s presence. These dingoes weren’t the mindless predator I had heard so much about, they had foresight, planning and in-depth understanding of human behaviour. Of course that remarkable evening only left me wanting more!

The danger of getting involved in photographing the world’s predators is rarely any attack from the animal itself, the trouble in fact starts with the emotions that these encounters stir up. You get an attack of passion, an addiction! I was completely hooked, but I knew I hadn’t captured an image that reflected the true nature of the dingo. I had to keep trying. I had to hope another chance would come my way – luckily for me I was fortunate enough to capture the image below in a separate encounter.

I spent over an hour following this beautiful female as she went about her daily business.  I believe this image really shows the true character of a dingo – a species of wild dog that is perfectly suited to Australia’s harsh environment, a predator that keeps a natural balance in an ecosystem and actually controls the numbers of other pest species which are far more damaging for agriculture. Quite simply this species of wild dog is an integral part of the landscape and that is why it fits so comfortably across this vast land.

There can be no denying that there is always going to be issues with livestock being killed by dingoes, and this will always be a flashpoint. However, there has been some recent evidence which has actually suggested that where these apex predators occur on farms with livestock, the farmers often have better grass yields as a result of fewer grazers competing over this limited resource. This in turn increases the farmer’s revenue from the healthier livestock reared on this land.

Dingoes will always carry out the odd raid on livestock, but just as the wolf has transformed the landscapes of Yellowstone NP since its reintroduction, perhaps the Australian equivalent can play a pivotal role in the restoration of the outback. If all sides can come together and better understand the dingo and the role it plays, there could be unknown benefits for all involved. There is hope yet to save this iconic species, but if no one is prepared to make a stand then they could all too easily slip away.

Bret’s next big photography project is ‘Life in the Clouds’ – a photographic exploration of Ecuador’s cloud forests and the intricacies that altitude plays in the distribution of species. Find out more about the project here.

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