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100-Year-Old Turtle Given Last Chance to Breed; Only 4 Left of Giant Turtle Species

Global_logo_color webA female Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) – potentially the last female of her species – has been artificially inseminated at the Suzhou Zoo in China. The procedure, an international effort, brought together top scientists from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), San Diego Zoo Global, Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bronx Zoo, Changsha Zoo, Suzhou Zoo and the China Zoo Association, and provides a ray of hope in a continuing effort to save the world’s most endangered turtle.

WCS China Reptile Program Director and coordinator of the Rafetus swinhoei breeding program, Dr. Lu Shunqing, mediated the program agreement among the partners and has coordinated the program during the past eight years.

“We had to find out if the last known male in China no longer produces viable sperm due to old age or an inability to inseminate the female,” said Dr. Gerald Kuchling, organizer of the artificial insemination effort and Rafetus breeding program leader for the TSA.

There are four Yangtze giant softshell turtles remaining in existence – two in Vietnam (both thought to be males) and two in China at the Suzhou Zoo (a male and female). The male and female—both believed to be greater than 100 years of age—were brought together in 2008 as part of a captive breeding program designed to recover the species. Although the two turtles have displayed courting behavior, eggs laid by the female were infertile.

To determine the cause of the infertility, Suzhou Zoo, Changsha Zoo, and the China Zoo Association requested TSA assemble a team of scientists to conduct a reproductive evaluation of the male, collect semen, determine if he had viable sperm, and, if viable sperm could be demonstrated, artificially inseminate the female.

During the process, the male was determined to have damaged sex organs, perhaps due to a fight with another male decades ago. For this reason, the scientists believe the male incapable of inseminating the female, and therefore, fertilizing the eggs.

“Normal semen parameters for Rafetus are unknown as this was the first attempt to collect and examine sperm from this species,” said Dr. Barbara Durrant, Director of Reproductive Physiology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “The semen evaluation revealed that approximately half of the sperm were motile.”

This attempt marks the first time artificial insemination has been tried with any softshell turtle species and, based on results of insemination attempts with other turtles, the odds are not good for success. With natural breeding unsuccessful however, the scientists felt it was time to explore this option. Both turtles recovered from the procedure in good condition.

“This was a great exploration to advance the conservation of Rafetus swinhoei, however, we can not yet determine if the exploration was successful or not,” said Director Chen Daqing of Suzhou Zoo. The female will lay the eggs in a few weeks and in a couple of weeks after that, the scientists will know if the eggs are fertile.

Listed at the top of the World Conservation Union’s Red List, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the most critically endangered turtle in the world. Its status in the wild has long been recognized as grim, but extinction risk now is believed higher than ever. Much of its demise has been attributed to over-harvesting and habitat degradation.

The Turtle Survival Alliance is transforming passion for turtles into effective conservation action through a global network of living collections and recovery programs.  The Turtle Survival Alliance envisions a future with zero turtle extinctions.  To achieve our mission, the Turtle Survival Alliance is restoring populations in the wild, where possible, building capacity to resolve, secure and conserve species within their range country, and securing species in captivity through breeding programs, both in and outside the range country.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on Earth. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in more than 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Elderly Northern White Rhino Passes Away at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

SafariParkA northern white rhino, Angalifu, passed away in the early hours of this morning, Sunday December 14. The male rhino, who was estimated to be 44 years of age, was under veterinary care for a variety of age related conditions. His death leaves only 5 Northern white rhinos left in the world: one elderly female at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 1 at a zoo in Czechoslovakia and 3 in Africa.

“Angalifu’s death is a tremendous loss to all of us.” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Not only because he was well beloved here at the Park but also because his death brings this wonderful species one step closer to extinction.”

Northern white rhinos have been brought to the brink of extinction due to poaching in Africa. Unfortunately only a few have been preserved at zoos and these have been largely non-reproductive.

“More than two decades ago we started working with the species here at the Safari Park.” Said Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive physiology for the San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research. “Unfortunately we only had three rhinos here at the Park and they were all of an advanced age. We were not able to get them to breed and we have been sadly watching their species being exterminated in the wild.”

In the wild rhinos are killed for their horns, a unique physiological feature made up of keratin (the same material in human fingernails). Many cultures believe rhino horn has medicinal value and the black-market in horns taken from poached animals continues to thrive.

Protected from the poaching that has wiped out northern white rhinos in Africa, Angalifu has been living at the Safari Park since his arrival from the Khartoum Zoo in the late 1980s. Although holding out little hope for the species, conservationists at San Diego Zoo Global continue to work to find a way to recover the species. Semen and testicular tissue from the male rhino have been stored in the Frozen Zoo with the hope that new reproductive technologies will allow recovery of the species.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the mission of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The important conservation and science work of these entities is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of the Zoological Society of San Diego.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Rhinos: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

The Safari Park's most recent eastern black rhino calf, Eric. There are only about 700 eastern black rhinos left in the wild.

In response to a recent article published by msnbc.com declaring the extinction of the western black rhino, Safari Park Curator of Mammals Randy Rieches had this to say:

“This is such incredibly horrible news. Within the last couple months we have seen the last Javan rhino in Vietnam poached, the western black rhino declared extinct, and numerous rhinos of all taxa in Africa and Asia poached for their horns, which are now being sold on the black market for up to $100,000 a kilo.

We thought that last year was such a horrendous year for rhinos being poached in Africa and Asia that it couldn’t get any worse. Unfortunately, we now see that the numbers continue to escalate higher in 2011.

There is no end in site to the carnage wreaked upon this magnificent family. As a conservationist, the term ‘never give up, never surrender’ has never carried more meaning.”

I second Randy’s sentiments, and if you’re reading this blog post you probably do, too. We can’t let human greed win this time. Help us spread the word about the dire plight of rhinos. Like, tweet, share, and re-share this blog post with your friends. Only through increased awareness can we inspire compassion and drive action to save rhinos. Unless we want to lose this incredible animal forever, we have to follow Randy’s advice: “never give up, never surrender.”

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Get Invited to Festival of Flight Tweet-up.