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The Great Horned Hope

Sumatran Rhinos Are Hairy, Quirky and Desperately Endangered Creatures. Which Makes the L.A. Zoo's New Young Male...

October 05, 2003|Katherine Gould | Katherine Gould, a freelance writer living in Glendale, worked at the Los Angeles Zoo for three years. Her first book, a collection of animal mating rituals offered as lessons for humans and called "A Tiger in the Bedroom," will be released this month by Andrews McMeel Publishing.

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.

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