We’ve been dreading the impending extinction of the Sumatran rhinoceros for decades, and sadly, it appears the stoic beast may not have much time left. With worldwide numbers dwindling to new lows, a team of zoologists in Cincinnati are resorting to an extreme measure: mating a brother and sister.
This ‘plan’ raises many questions, a few of them ethical. Terri Roth, Director of the Center for Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo, told the Associated Press that the planned inbreeding is far from an optimal solution. “We don’t like to do it, and long term, we really don’t like to do it,” she said. “When your species is almost gone, you just need animals and that matters more than genes right now – these are two of the youngest, healthiest animals in the population.”
She added that the siblings have one thing going for them: their parents are genetically diverse, so the more unsavory aspects of biological inbreeding may not be a factor. But regardless, she says their top priority is to impregnate the female, Suci, and facilitate the births of several calves before she is too old to bear offspring.
“We absolutely need more calves for the population as a whole; we have to produce as many as we can as quickly as we can,” Roth said. “The population is in sharp decline and there’s a lot of urgency around getting her pregnant.”
Despite efforts to preserve Sumatran rhinos in their natural habitat, experts believe fewer than 100 still live in the wild; at a summit in Singapore earlier this year, panelists revealed the current number reflects a decline of more than 50 percent in the last decade.
While urbanization and illegal rainforest logging have both played significant roles, most of the blame for the Sumatran rhino’s race toward extinction falls on the shoulders of poachers; the animal’s horn is prized as an aphrodisiac throughout Southeast Asia, while its meat is thought to cure every ailment from TB to diarrhea. Even oil extracted from its skin is thought to act as a topical aid for skin diseases. In other words, the animal’s perceived mystical value has led to its all but total destruction. That’s irony in the most tragic sense.
In addition to conservation efforts, captive-breeding measures have also failed. Roth told The Huffington Post that the Sumatran rhino is solitary by nature, so they naturally shy away from any situation where they are forced to socialize with another member of the species. Naturally, this proved problematic when mating season arrived. Ultimately, most of the rhinos died — and 20 years passed before the first baby was born.
So, what can be done? Well, the world’s leading experts on the animal have resorted to breeding a brother and sister in the desperate hope that it will perpetuate the species — at least, for a while. Like we said, this latest development may signal the final nail in the Sumatran rhino’s coffin. That’s a pretty lousy way to go out, especially for a descendant of the woolly mammoth. But hey, what can you do?
Actually, here’s what you can do: visit the official website of the International Rhino Foundation to learn more about ongoing efforts to preserve existing Sumatran rhino populations. Seriously guys, this animal is way too awesome for us to simply lose it forever.