Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Happy Christmas Entry, 1 of 2: Xmas Eve Birth of Critically Endangered Black Rhino at Lansing's Potter Park Zoo and Just Maybe a Hope for the Functionally-Extinct Northern White Rhino

The as-yet-unnamed newborn black rhino male calf bonds with his mother, Doppsee, just hours after he came into the world on Christmas Eve morning at Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Michigan.


OK, this blog has been clouded with miserable, bitter, vituperative entries of late, so let's switch it up with a happy story for the Christmas time of year …

Just before dawn on Christmas eve, a black rhino calf was born at the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Michigan.

Not only is this the first such birth at this zoo, but it represents a small but real bit of hope for the survival -- hopefully, if not the wild, but at least in captivity -- of the critically-endangered black rhinoceros species (Diceros bicornis).

A picture of Doppsee in her zoo pen April 1, 2019

Black rhino gestation lasts 15 to 16 months, so she was already pregnant .


"At 5:40 a.m. Dec. 24, 2019 Doppsee, the zoo's 12-year old female black rhino gave birth to her very first calf, a male. The animal care and veterinary staff at the zoo report that the calf stood up about an hour and a half after birth and appears to be nursing well."

The whole quiet, wonderful saga was captured on the rhino-cam set up in Doppsee's pen (three screenshot image captures of which I made and are featured in this entry).

The release also states: "As this is Doppsee's first pregnancy, the animal care and veterinary staff will continue to monitor Doppsee and her calf closely in the next few weeks. But so far, the rhino calf appears healthy and we have observed frequent nursing shortly after the birth, which is encouraging," said Potter Park Zoo veterinarian, Dr. Ronan Eustace."

The news release also notes that their are just over 50 black rhinos in the care of zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) under the auspices of AZA's Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the black rhino (it has SSPs for various critically-endangered species).

In this case, the father, Phineus, was brought from a zoo in Texas in 2017 to breed with Doppsee. According to the release, less than two black rhino calves are born into human care each year.

Here is some news media coverage of it (links embedded):

New York Times: Black Rhino Born at Michigan Zoo on Christmas Eve

CNN: Rare black rhino born at Michigan zoo on Christmas Eve

Lansing State Journal: Black baby rhino born at Potter Park Zoo on Christmas Eve

About the black rhino, here is what the World Wildlife Fund's Black Rhino webpage states:

Black rhinos are the smaller of the two African rhino species. The most notable difference between white and black rhinos are their hooked upper lip. This distinguishes them from the white rhino, which has a square lip. Black rhinos are browsers rather than grazers, and their pointed lip helps them feed on leaves from bushes and trees. They have two horns, and occasionally a third, small posterior horn.

Populations of black rhino declined dramatically in the 20th century at the hands of European hunters and settlers. Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers dropped by a sobering 98%, to less than 2,500. Since then, the species has made a tremendous comeback from the brink of extinction.

Thanks to persistent conservation efforts across Africa, black rhino numbers have doubled from their historic low 20 years ago to between 5,042 and 5,455 today.

However, the black rhino is still considered critically endangered, and a lot of work remains to bring the numbers up to even a fraction of what it once was -- and to ensure that it stays there.

Wildlife crime -- in this case, poaching and black-market trafficking of rhino horn -- continues to plague the species and threaten its recovery.

The situation is even more dire for the functionally-extinct northern white rhinoceros (or northern square-lipped rhinoceros), one of the two subspecies of the white rhinoceros (or square-lipped rhinoceros) with only two known individuals remaining -- both female. (The southern white rhinoceros is, thankfully, in much better shape.)

Najin and Fatu

The two female rhinos -- 30-year old Najin and her 19-year old daughter, Fatu -- belong to Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic but live in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where they are necessarily protected round-the-clock by armed conservation guards.

The penultimate step before actual extinction, this is what functional extinction looks like:

Armed guards protecting the very last known male northern white rhinoceros (named "Sudan") before he was euthanized on March 19, 2018


The only remaining hope for the northern white rhinoceros involves the use of a surrogate (probably a southern white rhino) to carry one of the two (!) viable embryos created in Sept 2019 using 10 egg cells taken from Najin and Fatu -- five from each that were carefully extracted in August 2019 -- that were fertilized with frozen sperm from dead male northern white rhinos.

Fatu (left) and Najin (right) relaxing at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, unaware of their significance

As the Wikipedia article linked below explains, the technique involves natural gametes of the living rhinos and induced pluripotent stem cells.

AP Caption: Najin, 30, left, and Fatu, 19, right, the last two northern white rhinos on the planet, return from grazing to their enclosure at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya Friday, Aug. 23, 2019; source here.

Per Wikipedia, what's more:

Subsequently, in the future, it might be possible to specifically mature the cells into specific cells such as neurons and muscle cells, in a similar way in which Katsuhiko Hayashi has grown mice out of simple skin cells. The DNA of a dozen northern white rhinos has been preserved in genetic banks in Berlin and San Diego.

So, if I understand this correctly, humanity has precisely two chances -- one for each viable embryo -- to bring the northern white rhinoceros species back from extinction and so undo this crime against nature.


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