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COLUMN ONE

Come into my mud pool

With his species' future at stake, Andalas the rhino is under pressure to perform with the ladies. He'll think about it, right after his foot rub.

April 26, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

Way Kambas National Park, Indonesia — PROMOTING the sex life of a stud Sumatran rhino from Los Angeles is an intricate affair involving mud, massages and frequent foot rubs. His species may be heading for extinction, but a male still has needs.

So Andalas, who flew here from the Los Angeles Zoo in February, is getting the pampered treatment from his Indonesian keepers. They hand-feed him his favorite ficus leaves, play hide-and-seek with him in the rain forest, gently nuzzle him nose to horn, and massage his cracked feet along with the soft spots of his ample butt.

"That's a good boy," they coo to the 1,540-pound beast in English, as he closes his eyes, softly snorts and soaks up the love.

The keepers hope all the affection will improve the odds that Andalas, the first Sumatran rhino born in captivity in 112 years, will soon sire offspring in his new home in a rhino sanctuary on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

While they watch to see how the 5-year-old performs, the pressure is building: Nothing less than the future of a species that has dwindled to about 300 animals in the wild may be riding on his hairy shoulders.

Poachers and illegal logging have decimated the Sumatran rhino population, killing an estimated 70% of the species in the last two decades. Illegal trafficking in the animals' horns feeds Asia's lucrative black market for aphrodisiacs and other traditional medicines.

Although rhino horn is rich in minerals, Western experts doubt that it has any significant medical benefits for humans, and they point out that legal, scientifically proven drugs can boost sex drive without killing rhinos.

Armed anti-poaching teams guard the animals in the rain forest, but patrols are expensive and difficult in rough terrain. It costs $2,000 a year to protect a single Sumatran rhino in the forest, said Nico van Strien, Southeast Asia field program coordinator for the International Rhino Foundation.

Supported by donations, mainly from the United States, the foundation for 14 years has worked to protect wild rhinos in Asia and Africa and to boost populations with captive breeding. But the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, which opened in 1995, has yet to produce any offspring. Efforts to breed Sumatran rhinos in zoos have largely failed, and donor fatigue is setting in.

Moving Andalas to Indonesia is a gamble that has to pay off.

"This is a second chance and probably also the last chance, to be honest," Van Strien said from Doorn, in the Netherlands. "If this does not work, I think it's going to be extremely difficult to convince the donors to keep on providing funds for the sanctuary."

For an inexperienced young male such as Andalas to even think about getting in the mood, numerous things must be just right.

To start with, Sumatran rhinos love their privacy. In the wild, adults live solitary lives in dense forest, rarely seen by humans or even other rhinos. They usually roam across a grazing territory of 8 square miles, said Marcellus Adi Riyanto, site manager of the sanctuary, near the city of Bandar Lampung.

Sumatran rhinos also need long, regular wallows in gooey mud unsullied by their own waste to feel good, a pleasure they don't often get at zoos, Riyanto said. Most of those locked up for captive breeding live close to each other, "separated only by bars."

"And they don't like it," he said. "They don't like to see each other. They get bored. They don't even have any desire to reproduce, no sex drive."

TO be in shape to mate, a male rhino also needs satisfying meals, something more to his taste than bales of zoo hay. Even with the right diet, young males often need a keeper's guiding hand to get their groove on. The odds of a successful union improve if the female doesn't inflict serious wounds with her long, razor-sharp canines, Riyanto said.

In the forest, a Sumatran male rhino goes looking for a female when he senses she is in heat, which occurs roughly every three weeks. Zoo rhinos often suffered serious injuries until experts figured out when it was safe to nudge them toward mating, Riyanto said.

"If the timing is bad, they fight when they meet. They might even kill each other," said Riyanto, who has seen a female chomp a deep gash 8 inches long in a pushy male. "Even if the timing is right, they still have rituals. The female is always looking for a good male. She will persuade the male to fight. If the male is strong enough, he will chase her." And only then does she give in to his advances.

Five species of rhino survive in the wild. Africa's white and black rhinos are the largest and most common. The other three are native to Asia: The Indian rhino is on the list of endangered species, and Southeast Asia's Javanese and Sumatran rhinos are critically endangered.

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest and most primitive. Some experts see it as the last representative of the woolly rhinoceros, which appeared in eastern Asia about a million years ago.

"It's a living fossil," Riyanto said.

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