The Great Horned Hope
Except for the hair, Andalas looks like a fairly average, smallish young rhinoceros, happily trotting around a grassy yard at the Los Angeles Zoo. But there’s all that hair. The shaggy patch on his back looks like a too-small toupee. On his belly and legs, the hair is sparse and spiky--all of it a deep, sultry auburn color. There’s a soft fringe around his ears, which, along with the nub where his horn hasn’t grown in yet, makes him look less like one of the rarest, most elusive and most endangered mammals on earth and more like a little clown.
At the moment, Andalas is checking the gate that leads back to his barn to see if dinner has been served. And as he trots around he squeaks, a high-pitched, trailing noise much like the vocalization of a humpback whale.
Andalas is a Sumatran rhino, the first of his species born and bred in captivity in 112 years. He is one of an estimated 300 Sumatran rhinos left on the planet. Only 13 are in captivity, only four of those in the United States. This one’s birth two years ago was the result of a nearly 20-year effort by experts from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Malaysia, and his recent arrival at the Los Angeles Zoo has the place buzzing. Says Cynthia Stringfield, the zoo’s senior veterinarian, a surprised grin stretching across her face: “Honestly, in my entire life, I never thought I would see this animal.”
But there’s a lot more to his story. To begin with, Andalas is the son of Emi. And everybody loves Emi.
Among zoo people, Sumatran rhinos are considered almost mythic. The smallest of all living rhinos, and the only hairy ones, their species has remained largely unchanged for 30 million years. Even in their native habitat, dark, dense jungles of Indonesia and Malaysia, they are rarely seen. Scientists who have researched Sumatran rhinos in the wild have studied their footprints, paths, and droppings without ever seeing the animals themselves.
When four U.S. zoos--Los Angeles, San Diego, Cincinnati and the Bronx--banded together with the Indonesian government in 1984 as the Sumatran Rhino Trust to trap the animals and start a captive-breeding program, conservation organizations charged that the project was driven by a desire to boost zoo collections rather than to save an endangered animal from extinction. But zoo officials pointed to a small wild population--believed to be fewer than 1,000 at the time--that was declining quickly because of habitat destruction and poaching. The zoos had been successful in breeding other endangered species, including other rhinos, and believed that captive breeding might be the only way to save Sumatran rhinos from extinction.
The zoos negotiated an agreement with the Indonesian government to trap “doomed” rhinos--animals destined to die because their jungles would be clear-cut to feed global demand for pulp wood and lumber, and to make way for palm oil, plantations, and subsistence farming. Some animals would stay in captivity in Indonesia and some would go to U.S. zoos. Malaysia, in a separate effort, trapped animals for its own captive-breeding program.
Catching the shy and elusive animals was extremely difficult, and it was not until 1988 that two females arrived in the United States. Although the trust had planned to bring 14 rhinos to the United States, in the end they brought only seven. Three went to San Diego, two to Cincinnati, one to the Bronx, and in 1991, a female named Embam went to Los Angeles.
She was very young, probably not yet 2 years old. She had a thick coat of bushy red-brown hair (it gets sparse and bristly when they’re adults), and as she played in her yard, pushing around a large rubber ball and wading in her pool, she made a happy-sounding squeaking noise. She was energetic and friendly and came when she was called. She charmed her keepers, who shortened her name from Embam to Emi. Gardeners would stop by in the morning to greet her. Everyone who met Emi became enchanted by the little rhino.
Says Stringfield: “You know in the movie, when one of them gets sick and the vet’s taking care of them? That’s what it’s like to work on Sumatran rhinos.”
In San Diego and Cincinnati--the only zoos with male and female rhinos--keepers tried to get the animals to breed. Everyone thought that would be the easy part. “We’d been successful with white rhinos, we’d been successful with black and we’d been successful with Indian,” says Michael Dee, general curator of the L.A. Zoo. “Everybody thought, well, put a pair together and they’re going to produce offspring. Wrong! There’s something different. This is a strange beast.”
Just how strange would take years to figure out, but there were signs from the beginning. For starters, no one could figure out the females’ reproductive cycles. All rhinos are solitary and often fight if put in the same yard together. With black, white and Indian rhinos, estrus is obvious because the male and female become fascinated with each other.
But the Sumatran rhinos never courted. With no behavioral cues pointing to estrus, keepers made their best guesses. They expected violence, because other rhinos fight before they mate, even when the female is in estrus. When keepers put the Sumatran rhinos together, the battles were far more explosive than they expected. “We’d get tremendous fighting,” says Ed Maruska, who was director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden from 1968 to 2000. “The animals would bite each other . . . . We would have to separate the animals for months after that just to heal them up.”
But the program had other, more serious problems--the animals were dying. From 1984 to 1991, nine of the 33 captured animals died. Necropsies showed that they had died of symptoms associated with old age, digestive problems, kidney failure. One died of complications from surgery. Then in May 1992, two females in the United States died, one from liver disease and the other from a twisted intestine. No one could figure out what the problem was. People began to wonder if Sumatran rhinos could survive in captivity.
Maruska was sure they could. People had said the same thing about gorillas, but zoos had learned how to care for gorillas, and nearly 500 have been born in the United States in the last 50 years.
There were more scares. One came in early 1994, when Emi got sick after eating an L.A. Zoo visitor’s discarded potato-chip bag. Frantic keepers called Stringfield, who had been at the zoo only six weeks. Fortunately, Stringfield had worked with rhinos before. Still, she was daunted by the possibility of losing the animal. When she discovered how easygoing Emi was, Stringfield says, “she instantly became my favorite animal.” Emi passed the potato-chip bag and quickly got better.
Another scare soon followed. Ipuh, the male at the Cincinnati Zoo, started to lose weight. Steve Romo, a rhino keeper, had worked with the animals for two decades and had escorted the 1,450-pound Ipuh from Sumatra to the United States in 1991. In 1992, he had watched helplessly as an elderly female Sumatran rhino had wasted away and died. And then, in 1994, he watched, helpless again, as Ipuh shed 250 pounds over nearly six months.
“We did about every test we possibly could think of with him and we never came up with a definitive diagnosis,” says Mark Campbell, director of veterinary services for the Cincinnati Zoo. Ipuh got thinner and weaker, and finally refused to move at all.
“Nobody thought he was going to survive,” says Romo, who decided as a last-ditch effort to bring in some ficus, which is what the rhinos eat in the wild. In zoos, herbivores eat their favorite type of hay, food pellets made of alfalfa, corn or other suitable ingredients, vegetables and fruit. Other rhinos have adapted to the diet just fine, but Romo wondered if Sumatran rhinos couldn’t. Because there isn’t much ficus in Cincinnati, Romo ordered some from the San Diego Zoo. When it arrived, Romo entered the barn with two boxes of ficus branches and leaves. Worst-case scenario, Ipuh would at least get a nice last meal.
“I was about 70 feet away when I opened this box,” Romo says. “I pulled out a branch and shook it off. [Ipuh’s] head went up in the air. He could smell it. He immediately got up and walked to the next stall--and he hadn’t moved for four days--and he started eating. He ate for an hour and 45 minutes.”
Romo started feeding Ipuh 50 to 80 pounds of ficus a day, and he recovered. (The San Diego Zoo continues to ship two tons of ficus a month to the Cincinnati and Bronx zoos to feed three Sumatran rhinos.) As Ipuh regained his health, though, the program suffered another tragedy--both the male and female at San Diego died within a week of each other. Whether the deaths were from diet or age or something else still isn’t entirely clear.
Because of those setbacks, enthusiasm for the Sumatran rhino trust was fading. Wildlife officials stopped trapping the animals in Indonesia in 1992 and in Malaysia in 1995. Problems in the wild were as acute as ever. The animals that had once been found from the Southeast Asian islands of Indonesia, across the Malaysian peninsula and as far north as Thailand, Burma and India were now restricted to a few isolated populations in Indonesia and Malaysia. On the island of Sumatra, two dozen rhinos in Way Kambas National Park are more than 100 miles from any other populations.
And those groups that did exist were much smaller than scientists had thought. In a 1993 survey in Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra, researchers expected to find 500 rhinos. They found fewer than 30. Researchers eventually lowered their estimate of the wild Sumatran rhino population from 1,000 to just 300. While rangers patrol national parks, many rhinos live in areas scheduled for logging and coffee plantations, and also are difficult to protect from poachers.
The chief threat to the rhinos remains poachers, who kill the animals for their horns, which are believed by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to have the power to cure fevers and convulsions. (A rhino’s horn is actually made of compressed keratin, the same substance as human fingernails.) In both Indonesia and Malaysia, rangers patrol the wilderness to find and arrest poachers and dismantle their traps. Mohd Khan bin Momin Khan, former director general of Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks and current chair of the Malaysian Rhino Foundation, concedes that the animals must breed in captivity if the species is to be saved.
By 1995, the prospects for captive breeding were looking dim. Of the seven Sumatran rhinos originally brought into the United States, only three remained. Rapunzel, a female, had been loaned by the Bronx Zoo to Cincinnati to be with Ipuh. Maruska asked that Emi join them.
Manuel Mollinedo, who came from L.A.'s Department of Parks and Recreation, had been director of the Los Angeles Zoo only a few months when Maruska called. Mollinedo still thinks the animals would have been better off in sunny Southern California, but he was in no position to argue. The Los Angeles Zoo was in what people still refer to as “the dark days.” In February 1995, three directors from other zoos (including, incidentally, Maruska) had visited the L.A. Zoo and issued a scathing report about the dreadful conditions for animals and staff. After decades of civic neglect, the zoo was overcrowded, and its decaying infrastructure jeopardized keeper and public safety, as well as animal health. The American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. threatened to revoke the facility’s accreditation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos, threatened to shut down the place.
By contrast, the Cincinnati Zoo had a 16,000-square-foot research facility dedicated to research in endangered wildlife, and scientists who specialize in reproductive biology.
“Everyone knew that it was the right thing for [Emi] to go to Cincinnati,” Stringfield says, recalling the sad day in August 1995 when the rhino was sent away. “We crated her up, and she was getting forklifted out of the zoo, and I remember, I went over to the crate and I said, ‘Come on, Emi, you are the last hope.’ ”
In Cincinnati, Maruska had charged reproductive physiologist terri Roth with figuring out the estrus cycle of the Sumatran rhinos. Roth performed ultrasound examinations and determined that Rapunzel’s ovaries no longer were active. Rapunzel returned to the Bronx Zoo, where she lives today. But Emi’s ovaries were active, but one thing was missing; over six months, she never ovulated.
Roth decided to try putting Emi and Ipuh together for a short time every day when they were least likely to be aggressive--after Ipuh had been fed and was relaxing in his mud wallow. For 40 days, Ipuh and Emi had short and uneventful meetings. Still expecting some fighting before the pair would mate, keepers watched one day in August 1997 as Ipuh calmly got up and started following Emi around the yard. Before long, she stopped and stood still for him and he mounted. It was a smooth, nonaggressive mating.
Then Roth saw the key that had been missing from the estrus cycle puzzle: Emi ovulated after the mating. Cats, camels, and rabbits are induced ovulators, requiring stimulation to ovulate, but no members of the horse/rhino/tapir family are known to be. Three weeks later, the pair mated again. And this time, Emi became pregnant. In October 1997, Roth held a press conference to share the news. The joy was short-lived when Emi miscarried two weeks later.
“At this point, I just thought, well, this is her first time being pregnant,” Roth says. “Maybe it takes her system a while to really get on board with this.”
In late March 1998, Emi became pregnant a second time. This time, Roth waited until she saw the fetus moving before she announced the pregnancy. And once again, Emi miscarried. Over the next two years, Emi got pregnant and miscarried three more times. Roth stopped telling the press.
By now, keepers at the Cincinnati Aoo were certain that the key to a successful Sumatran rhino introduction was to allow the animals to be in the same yard while distracting the male with food. Ipuh, at least, showed a clear preference for food over fighting.
“Everybody was amazed that these rhinos would prefer to have the bananas and the ficus than fight,” Romo says.
Romo then went to Malaysia to share the information. He managed to get the Malaysian animals to mate, but none of the females became pregnant. Ultrasounds showed that the females had developed tumors and cysts in their reproductive tracts, a common occurrence among female pachyderms that go many years without getting pregnant. A decade in captivity without a male may have left them unable to conceive. But Romo kept trying.
When Emi became pregnant a sixth time in May 2000, Roth began treating her with progesterone, a hormone that helps sustain pregnancy. Sometimes horses need extra progesterone to carry a pregnancy; perhaps Emi did too. This time Emi carried the pregnancy past 90 days, and then six months, and Roth grew optimistic.
She also started to wonder how long the gestation would be. For other rhinos it’s 14 to 17 months. Roth knew it would be at least 400 days because a pregnant Sumatran rhino that had been captured in 1986 gave birth 400 days after capture. But whether gestation was 401 days or 501, Roth didn’t know.
When Emi had made it to day 249 in January 2001, Roth finally announced the pregnancy. Later that year, surveillance cameras were installed in the Sumatran rhino barns so docents could monitor Emi’s behavior. (Those cameras are now accessible on the World Wide Web and you can see Emi at www.aroundcinci.com/rhinocam/)
Veterinarians started preparing for potential birth complications. “We had four surgeons from Ohio State on call, in case she got to the point that she was having difficulty delivering the calf, they could come down and do a C-section,” says Campbell. He also prepared a resuscitation kit in case the calf was weak, and a box of equipment to treat injuries in case Emi was rough with the calf. “We knew that in the end it might not go well,” says Roth. “But if something happened and the calf didn’t survive, it couldn’t be because of human error.”
On Sept. 12, 474 days into her pregnancy, Emi was pacing and looking restless. It was the day after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington; while the rest of the world watched television news, Roth spent the entire night watching a restless Emi on the monitors.
Andalas was born at 11:23 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2001. “My great relief was when Andalas wasn’t even all the way out of her and he started kicking his front legs,” Roth says.
But her joy was tempered. “In some ways, the excitement was toned down because of what had happened that week,” Roth says. “It was a quiet, happy moment. People weren’t jumping for joy, but it gave us something positive when so much bad had happened.”
Everything went perfectly. The calf was healthy. Emi suffered no complications, and after staring at the calf for five minutes, seemingly bewildered, Emi began to lick him. Within an hour and a half, the 73-pound calf stood. A couple of hours later, the calf started to nurse.
In honor of the island of Sumatra, where his mother was captured, the calf was given the island’s original name: Andalas. As he grew, scientists at the Cincinnati Zoo made plaster casts of his footprints, the first accurate measurements of Sumatran rhino feet that were matched with known ages and weights. Researchers continued to monitor Andalas and Emi, and like his mother, Andalas charmed the zoo staff.
Within a year, Andalas grew to 940 pounds, and Roth figured it was time to wean him. “The only way he could nurse was lying on the ground,” she says. In addition to mother’s milk, he was eating five apples, four bananas and 30 pounds of ficus leaves every day.
In april 2003, Emi got pregnant again. This time Roth decided not to treat her with progesterone. “My hope is that having gone through an entire pregnancy, whatever was out of whack with her system before is OK now,” she says.
But there’s another reason. “If we put her on the synthetic progestin every time she got pregnant from here on out. I think there would be plenty of critics out there who would say the captive breeding program for Sumatran rhinos never really worked, because they couldn’t do it on their own.”
So Emi gets one chance to carry a pregnancy on her own--but only one. If all goes well, at press time, she will have made it nearly six months, well beyond the time of her earlier miscarriages. She has nearly nine months to go.
With Emi pregnant again, it was time for Andalas to find a new home. Usually, zoo breeding loan agreements stipulate that the firstborn offspring is promised to the loaning zoo. When Maruska had asked that Emi be sent to Cincinnati, he promised Mollinedo that Emi’s firstborn would go to Los Angeles.
Today, the situation at the Los Angeles Zoo is markedly different than it was in 1995. In his first year as zoo director, Mollinedo sent away a number of animals to get them out of decrepit exhibits. He wrestled more funding from a City Council embarrassed by the zoo’s negative publicity. He hired more staff, and within a year had pushed through more than 400 improvements. By 1996, when the three zoo directors returned to survey the facility, they found the situation much better. The AZA in 1996 renewed the L.A. Zoo’s accreditation for five years. (Accreditation was renewed for five years again in 2002.)
When Mayor James Hahn, in 2002, asked Mollinedo to take over the reins of the Department of Recreation and Parks, Maruska came to the L.A. Zoo as interim director. (He was recently replaced by John Lewis.) So although others, including the Indonesian government, wanted Andalas, Maruska made sure the rhino came to Los Angeles.
Andalas was 18 months old and 1,100 pounds when he was moved to the Los Angeles Zoo in June. Everyone from keepers to office staff was eager to see him. They had heard that he was as friendly as Emi. They heard that he squeaked like Emi. They heard he was as hairy as Emi.
“Actually, I think Andalas is friendlier than Emi,” Romo says. Like his mother, Andalas is easy to handle, charismatic--and really cute. “He looks like a hairy red dinosaur,” Stringfield says.
Stringfield doesn’t normally monitor animals going through their mandatory 30-day quarantine, but she insisted on medically supervising Andalas. Once he was out of quarantine, Stringfield handed over care of Andalas to a keeper who was new to the L.A. Zoo--Steve Romo. After three years of setting up fruitless rhino dates in Malaysia, Romo had come to Los Angeles.
Romo opens the gate and calls out, “Andalas!” The rhino trots into the barn for a snack of sweet potatoes and bananas while Romo sets out dinner in the yard. Andalas soon wanders into the yard, chomping down on the green leaves, snapping the branches with his teeth and chewing loudly. This still-growing toddler will eat a pile of ficus three feet across and two feet high before Romo returns in the morning.
Before he leaves, though, Romo pets Andalas for a few minutes. Then he locks up the barn and calls it a day.
On the other side of the world, wild Sumatran rhinos face an uncertain future. Officials have decided to search areas designated for logging to see if there are other doomed rhinos that could be brought into the program. The International Rhino Foundation (www.rhinos-irf.org) continues to raise funds to support anti-poaching patrols and captive-breeding efforts. Thomas Foose, program director of the foundation, is cautiously hopeful about the fate of Sumatran rhinos, but adds: “It is possible to save them. We’re all very quixotic. We don’t admit lost causes.”
Besides, in a shady, grassy yard at the Los Angeles Zoo, there exists a clown-faced, shaggy-haired embodiment of hope.