Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Saddest Tale on Earth - The Sumatran Rhino



Months ago there were promises of more panda action and eloquent prose relating to the discussion of further endangered animals. That amounted to something of a lie but it is not my fault, instead I will unfairly blame the three species of lemur I now spend my Saturdays working with.

However, it is not crowned lemurs or red-belled lemurs or my amazing black and white ruffed lemur Aramis who I will talk about today. Although all of these species are in strife and on the whole lemurs are facing extinction, there is one story which is perhaps sadder than that of lemurs and red pandas and lorises all put together.  This is the Sumatran Rhino.
A Sumatran doing what it does best
To think of the Sumatran Rhino evokes feelings of loss, emptiness, sorrow and melancholy. As a geek about all things primate (and of course panda) this is an anomaly for myself. As an annoying, snotty nosed kid I was a frequent visitor to Howletts (where I now volunteer) and lesser so its sister zoo, Port Lympne. Port Lympne homed Europe’s only Sumatran Rhinos.

The clich├ęd view of a rhino is one of strength, speed, endurance, ferocity. This is a deserved reputation. However, the Sumatran Rhino is far removed from its African cousins. Closely related to woolly rhinos, they live in rainforets and are covered in hair, have two softly featured horns, are far smaller and emit haunting whines to communicate. They are one of nature’s most gentle and endearing creatures.

I have vague memories of Port Lympne’s two. My cell brains have since suffered a great degree of loss. I remember Meranti and Torgamba enjoying mud baths, chatting in that strange cry, and one time being there for feeding so they were right up at the fence, only a few feet away.  They were the first animals to steal my heart.

Meranti died in 1994. Torgamba, the male, was left as the only Sumatran for thousands of miles and one of only a few hundred in the world. Inevitably and rightly he was moved to Indonesia in 1998 to take part in their domestic breeding programme.
Torgamba
One of the most poignant moments of my childhood was saying goodbye, knowing that I would likely never see another Sumatran Rhino. I can remember lagging behind my dad, dragging my heels and walking backwards as I didn’t want to bid farewell.

Today there are fewer than 100 on the planet. Why though, who could hurt such enchanting, tender beings? The answers are familiar. Habitat loss and traditional ‘medicine’. Their horns supposedly cure anything from fevers to AIDS, of course an illness which has preyed upon man for centuries. What are their horns made of? Keratin. The same thing as our fingernails.

The remaining wild rhinos are sparse and hugely fragmented, the likelihood of these meeting let along mating is acutely minimal. Additionally, females can develop problems with their uteruses if they do not mate when in oestrus. This means they become barren, an issue which has reared its ugly head in captivity.

Torgamba died in 2011 at the elderly age of 32. I haven’t got a solution here. There is no silver lining. Whilst posts on other wildlife will talk of hope, this species looks to be extinct shortly. That will be a tragic and wholly unnecessary loss.


An African cousin who walked for five days before being put out of its misery