By Oliver Ryder
May 30, 2007
In 1988 I traveled with my family behind the “Iron Curtain” to visit a zoo in Eastern Bohemia of some renown. The Vychdoceska Zoo in Dvur Kralove, Czechoslovak Soviet Socialist Republic, had collected a variety of rare species of mammals directly from the wild in Africa and brought them to an otherwise little recognized zoo. How this small zoo was able to arrange such a feat is a story that involves the cold war and the struggle for the two major powers of the time, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., to enlist African allies, lest the other side gained controlling interests of the African continent and its rich natural resources.
Of the two species of African rhino, the white rhino is distributed in two long-isolated populations. The southern white rhinoceros declined to the brink of extinction and then through conservation efforts in South African parks as well as the development of technologies for translocating rhinos – including to places like the newly begun San Diego Wild Animal Park – the species has recovered remarkably. The northern white rhino, once the more numerous and the subject of a famous African hunting safari by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, was drastically declining. South African conservationist Ian Player visited CRES and requested that we clarify the evolutionary and taxonomic status of the northern white rhinoceros. A pair had been held in the collections of the Zoological Soicety of San Diego and samples from one animal were available. This request came just at the time that new technologies in DNA analysis were being applied to exactly these kinds of questions and immediately we shifted our priorities to investigate this question brought before us. A CRES Postdoctoral Fellow, trained at UC Berkley, who later became the Chair of the Biochemistry Department at Howard University, undertook these studies and, because of our Frozen Zoo® repositories, was able to immediately utilize material on hand and demonstrate the clear genetic differentiation of the northern and southern white rhinoceros. These studies were later confirmed in other laboratories and with larger numbers of both northern and southern white rhinos in the study; the results were upheld, helping to focus conservation effort on the northern white rhinos and the unique ecosystem in which they survived. Garamba National Park lies in the northeastern portion of Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) adjacent to the border with Sudan. Heroic efforts by field researchers to study and monitor the rhinos in Garamba led to the chilling conclusion that fewer than 30 probably remained. The breeding group in Czechoslovakia represented the only breeding population outside of Africa.
Over the course of summer sojourn art Dvur Kralove with my family, I helped establish DNA collections from animals imported from Africa into the zoo. Laboratory space in their scientific institute was made available to me and I worked on a daily basis with the curators and veterinarians. My children had the run of the zoo and often received rides on the veterinarian’s moped. We got to know each of the northern white rhinos as individuals and to our great joy, a female rhino calf was born that summer while we were present. Later, two females and a male northern white rhinoceros were transferred from Dvur Kralove to the San Diego Wild Animal Park in hopes that the open spaces and environment that had been so conducive for breeding southern white rhinos would produce similar benefits for the highly endangered northern white rhinoceros. The transfer took place in 1989 and, in spite of all efforts that could be mustered from curators, keepers, veterinarians, and reproductive specialists, our female northern white rhinos never reproduced. This morning’s news contains the obituary of Nadi, one of the rhinos I first met in Czechoslovakia, whom my children and I visited on many occasions and who undertook an immense journey in her lifetime from the tall grass savannas of the eastern Congo to end her days at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. We have saved her cells and her DNA, something less than our dreams of her producing calves in the San Pasqual Valley.
As the light of this unique animal flickers ever more dimly, the dreams of rapidly recovering this species seems thwarted by events frustratingly beyond our ability to influence. It’s good that we tried, in the face of overwhelming odds, to save this, yet another, endangered species. And, the story is not yet completely written. But when the obituary of a single animal has such a pronounced impact, we find occasion to pause and reflect. And then, we roll up our sleeves and see what we can do.