Jenn Beening is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. See her previous post, DIY Succulent Centerpiece.
It was a Sunday morning when I got the call that Angalifu, our male northern white rhino, had passed away. I asked over and over, “Are you sure it was a northern white rhino?” thinking to myself there are only six left in the world and maybe even five if what the pathologist was telling me was true. After she confirmed it indeed was Angalifu, our 44-year-old northern white rhino, I began to panic. My boss and co-worker are the only other two people who know how to freeze rhino sperm and they both were out of town!
Collecting and freezing sperm from this extremely rare animal was now all up to me. This would probably be one of the most important days of my career—no pressure! Knowing I couldn’t possibly do everything on my own, I contacted the rest of the Reproductive Physiology staff, and Kaitlin Croyle and Chelsea Mannie graciously gave up their Sunday to help me.
A complete post-mortem exam is conducted on all animals that die at the Zoo and the Safari Park to document the cause of death and to preserve tissues for histological examination and research. I picked up Angalifu’s gonadal tissue from the Zoo, then drove to the Institute for Conservation Research at the Safari Park to begin recovering the sperm and processing the testicular tissue.
The first thing I did was check to see if his sperm was still motile, and luckily it was. I made a few different stains to check the viability, acrosome integrity, morphology and plasma membrane integrity. All of this told me the quality of the sperm before I cryopreserved it. Time was of the essence, so while I was processing the sperm, Kaitlin and Chelsea were labeling 275 small cryovials in which we would freeze the sperm and tissue; 200 for the sperm and 75 for the testicular tissue. Labeling vials is a long, tedious process. Without their help I would have been there longer and the sperm quality would have been compromised.
Our team had prepared a plan of action in advance of Angalifu’s passing, hoping we would not have to use it anytime soon. We decided to freeze his sperm using two different methods, so that if one technique did not result in good viability and motility after thaw, perhaps the other method would have fared better. After all the vials were labeled, I placed the sperm—diluted with a protective buffer—into the vials and placed them in a 39°F (4°C) cold room to cool for two and a half hours.
While the sperm was cooling, we began to mince the testicular tissue and distribute it among vials with a buffer and a cryoprotectant, which would protect the cells from the damage of ice crystal formation during the freezing procedure. The cryopreserved tissue can be used to isolate spermatogonial stem cells for future assisted reproductive technology. The tissue samples were slowly frozen in a controlled-rate programmable freezer. When it was finished, I submerged the vials in liquid nitrogen and placed them in a large liquid nitrogen storage tank.
By the time the Angalifu’s testicular tissue was safely stored in the Frozen Zoo®, the sperm had nearly finished cooling. It was then time to add the cryoprotectant. The sperm was now at 39°F (4°C), and we didn’t want it to experience a rise in temperature due to warm cryoprotectant or by doing the addition at room temperature. So, we bundled up in jackets, removed 200 vial caps, and pipeted the cold cryoprotectant to each vial in the cold. It may not sound that hard, but when you must do so standing inside a huge refrigerator, it’s pretty difficult. We took turns exiting the cold room for a few seconds at a time to we warm our hands. Once the cryoprotectant was added, we froze the sperm in liquid nitrogen vapor. The first step is to place the vials on a Styrofoam block floating on the surface of a container of liquid nitrogen. After 15 minutes, we submerged the vials completely into the liquid nitrogen and stored them in the large tank.
It was a very long day working non-stop to help preserve this critically important sperm, but in the end it felt very rewarding. It is great to know that we did all we could to conserve the northern white rhino species. I am happy to say that we have 200 vials of sperm and 75 vials of testicular tissue from Angalifu stored in the Frozen Zoo.
Angalifu’s sperm, along with previously collected semen, will be utilized in the future to fertilize eggs through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and/or intracytoplasmic sperm injection. Stem cells will be isolated from his testicular tissue and cultured to stimulate the manufacture of sperm. Although Angalifu did not reproduce during his lifetime, there is hope that he will make a future genetic contribution to the preservation of his species through artificial reproduction.
Carly Young is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, The Python Challenge.
Today is World Wildlife Day! The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed this day, the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as an important one to highlight one of the most serious threats to wildlife across the globe: the illegal trade in wildlife, also called wildlife trafficking.
Wildlife trafficking is the illegal sale or trade of animals or plants, in part or in whole. For some wildlife, trade is legal: harvesting fish from the sea to feed people is a common practice. In the western world, it typically occurs in accordance with regulations and quotas to ensure that this commercial enterprise does not doom the fish to extinction. Your kitchen may contain mushrooms or morels that were harvested from the wild for your consumption. Some medicinal plants harvested in the wild might infuse your cup of tea. These are legal examples of trade in wildlife and plants.
Illegal trade in wildlife occurs when local and international laws are broken for the purpose of commercial enterprise. Often, the laws come about to support CITES, whose objective is to prevent commerce from threatening the survival of plant and animal species. Typically, laws are broken when that commerce proves exceptionally lucrative, as has proven to be the case for species like elephants and rhinoceros. Unfortunately, elephant ivory and rhino horn can bring big financial returns for poachers and the crime syndicates who fund them. Ounce for ounce, rhino horn is worth more than drugs like cocaine on the black market, drawing as much as $60,000/kilogram. This is the primary reason that rhino populations are suddenly experiencing steep declines, as poachers slaughtered 1,215 across the globe in 2014. That’s one rhino killed every eight hours for the purpose of making money for criminal organizations. And elephants are victims, too. Killed for their ivory tusks, about 96 elephants a day fall victim to illegal trafficking. These deaths draw both rhinos and elephants closer to the threat of extinction.
As stated by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, “Illegal wildlife trade undermines the rule of law and threatens national security; it degrades ecosystems and… combating this crime is not only essential for conservation efforts and sustainable development, it will contribute to achieving peace and security in troubled regions where conflicts are fueled by these illegal activities.” This is a serious conservation issue. Its time we all get serious about wildlife trafficking.
What can you do? Start by informing yourself. Though China is one of the primary destinations for most trafficked goods, you might be surprised to learn that the US is the second leading recipient of illegal ivory. So take the next step: refuse to buy trafficked goods. Never, ever buy ivory statues or jewelry, or rhino horn products and powders. Ending the demand for these items is an important part of the offensive to end the slaughter of rare wildlife across the globe, and a crucial part of preventing extinction.
San Diego Zoo Global is in the business of ending extinction. Combating illegal wildlife trafficking is an important part of meeting that objective. We hope you’ll join us this World Wildlife Day by getting serious about wildlife crime.
Suzanne Hall is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Who You Calling Sloth?.
The next step would require conversion of the cells preserved in the Frozen Zoo® to stem cells that could develop into sperm and eggs. A process to do this was successfully developed in the laboratory of Dr. Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Research Institute and published in 2011.
“If we can take reprogrammed cells and direct them to become eggs and sperm, we can use in vitro fertilization to generate a new animal,” said Jeanne Loring, Director of Regenerative Medicine for the Scripps Research Institute. “Bold new initiatives are required to save endangered species, and we recognize the application of stem cell technology using cells in the Frozen Zoo® provides hope for preventing extinctions, with scientific innovation helping to lead these efforts.”
Researchers at the Safari Park have been working for decades to breed the species but had only four aged individuals to work with. After the recent death of the male rhino, Angalifu, reproductive physiologists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research collected and cryopreserved 200 vials of sperm and 75 vials of testicular tissue. This sperm, along with previously collected semen saved in the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo®, will be utilized for future assisted reproduction efforts.
“The reproductive system of rhinos is very complex and there is still so much we do not know,” said Barbara Durrant Ph.D, reproductive physiologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “We will meet the challenge to save this beautiful animal by combining recent advances in genetic and reproductive technology with our expertise in animal care and welfare.”
The Seaver Institute has awarded San Diego Zoo Global $110,000 to fund whole genome sequencing of northern and southern white rhinos in an effort to characterize genetic diversity. Understanding the genetic differences between rhino species will allow scientists to determine what assisted reproduction mechanisms may be used for future conservation.
“The Seaver Institute supports fundamental research and innovative inquiry for particular projects that offer the potential for significant advancement in their fields,” said Victoria Dean, President for the Seaver Institute. “We are interested in supporting this project which will take advantage of the, until now, theoretical value of the Frozen Zoo.”
Only one northern white rhino, an elderly female, remains at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not reproduced.
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 made accessible to 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
Feeling Better and Getting Her Nails Done: Northern White Rhino at San Diego Zoo Safari Park Gets Pedicure
Most rhinos wear their nails down just by walking, but Nola’s nails grow at a particularly fast rate. To provide optimal health, keepers provide Nola with nail trims about every three weeks. She is the only rhino at the Safari Park who receives pedicures. Keepers use the same type of tools to trim Nola’s nails as are used to trim horses’ hooves. Most pedicure sessions last about 30 minutes, but keepers work as long as Nola will allow. When Nola is done, she lets the keepers know by standing up and walking away.
Nola is one of just five northern white rhinos left in the world. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not reproduced. Poaching for its horn has brought the northern white rhino to such critically low numbers.
Photo taken on Feb. 19 by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
“There’s a rhyme and reason to the wild outdoors,” sings Elton John in The Lion King. Disney’s Simba and Nala aren’t the only ones who “can feel the love tonight” during the Valentine’s Day season. Perhaps you want to know about the wacky, wild, and sometimes familiar romance rituals of the Safari Park animals? During this season of love, now’s your chance.
Some of the largest lovers at the Safari Park are southern white rhinos. Instead of mating seasonally like deer, breeding females can go into estrus any time of the year. Solitary, territorial males horn-wrestle one another for the privilege of mating with an estrus female. The winner approaches his intended mate with a wheezy, hic-throb noise—kind of a “Hey baby. How you doin’?” a la Friends character Joey Tribbiani. In an attempt at seduction, the male rests his head on the female’s rump. If she’s willing, mating lasts about 30 minutes. Over the years, “love” has definitely been in the air among the southern white rhinos at the Safari Park: they have produced 93 calves and counting.
In contrast to the rhinos’ cumbersome courtship, greater flamingos look like a precision drum line during their elaborate courtship rituals. The flamingo colony, or flamboyance, marches together in shallow water while honking, abruptly switching directions. The birds also head-flag, rhythmically turning their heads side-to-side, and salute each other with outstretched wings to display their contrasting colors. When a female finds a desirable male, she leaves the flamboyance and heads to slightly deeper water. The male vaults onto the female’s back and plants his feet on her wing joints, followed by an acrobatic dismount over her head. After mating, the pair begins building a volcano-shaped mud nest. Females lay a single egg, and both parents take turns incubating it for 28-32 days. Flamingo mating is seasonal, occurring during the rainy season to take advantage of the abundant food and mud.
Unlike flamingos, African lions don’t have a breeding season. Instead, mating usually occurs when a male assumes control of a pride. Lionesses only have a four to seven day estrus window, and the male makes the most of it. Although lions are world-renowned for their marathon sleep sessions, they also break records in the mating category. Lions usually mate for eight to 68 seconds at a time every 25 minutes over a four-day period; pairs may mate up to 100 times in one day! During this time, the male guards the female to keep the competition away. If the mating is successful, three and a half months later the female delivers a litter of one to four cubs. The females in a pride communally nurse their cubs for about seven months.
While lions have some of the longest mating sessions in the animal kingdom, giraffes have some of the shortest. Copulation lasts barely a second, but it’s no “stretch” to say that giraffes are foreplay nerds. Interested males practically do a litmus test to evaluate females! A male closely follows an estrus female, waiting for the right moment to nudge her hind leg—her cue to urinate. Next, he sips a sample of the urine and curls his upper lip, opening the Jacobson’s organ on the roof of his mouth in a behavior called the Flehmen response. This allows him to test the female’s hormone levels to see if she is ready to breed—picture a connoisseur sampling a fine wine.
This year, forget the fancy dinner and flowers for Valentine’s Day. Come to the Safari Park and marvel at wild romance. Maybe you’ll even imagine strains of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” playing in the background…
Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gaur Game Plan.
Nola, a critically endangered 40-year-old female northern white rhino, who has been under close medical watch for the past 11 days in a boma at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, is showing signs of improved health and returned to her 65-acre field enclosure today where she was greeted by Cape buffalo that also share her habitat.
The elderly Nola was placed under veterinary care on Saturday, Dec. 27, after her keepers noticed she had reduced appetite and activity levels and had a thick nasal discharge. To provide the opportunity for optimal health, Nola was moved to a heated enclosure inside the South African Plains field exhibit to provide her comfort from the recent chilly weather and allow the animal care team to keep close watch over her. Veterinarians determined that, in addition to Nola’s age-related issues, she has a sinus infection and they are treating her with antibiotics.
Keepers report Nola was pleased to be back in the field where she has ample space to exercise and can enjoy time with her companion, a 45-year-old male southern white rhino named Chuck.
Nola is one of just five northern white rhinos left in the world. Three other northern white rhinos are at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos have not been able to breed. Poaching for its horn has brought the northern white rhino to such critically low numbers.
Photo taken on Jan. 8, 2015, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Nola, a 40-year-old northern white rhino, underwent a veterinary exam earlier this morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, allowing associate veterinarian Meredith Clancy to swab her nostrils to collect mucus samples as keepers Kim Millspaugh and Mike Veale assisted.
The elderly Nola was placed under veterinary care on Saturday after her keepers noticed she had reduced appetite and activity levels and had a thick nasal discharge. The Safari Park’s veterinary team is providing Nola with the optimal care to thrive by giving her an injection of antibiotics to ward off any possible infection and is awaiting results from blood work and today’s nasal samples to determine if further medical treatment is needed.
Nola, who is already being treated for age-related arthritis, has been moved to a heated enclosure inside her Asian Plains field exhibit to provide her comfort from the chilly weather and allow the animal care team to keep close watch over her.
Nola is one of just five northern white rhinos left in the world. Recently, Angalifu, a 44-year-old male northern white rhino who also lived at the Safari Park, died of age-related causes. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not been able to reproduce. Poaching for its horn has brought the northern white rhino to the brink of extinction.
Photo taken on Dec. 29, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
This year, the Safari Park baby boom provided over 650 tiny new additions to our animal family, some of which were released into the wild. From cute chicks to courageous calves and cubs, here are some of the noteworthy births we saw in 2014:
The birth of our first Uganda giraffe calf on January 8 was a marvelous way to kick off the New Year. However, shortly after Shani’s calf arrived, keepers noticed the youngster was exhibiting signs of weakness and not eating well. At two weeks old, Leroy was sent to the Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center, where he spent 39 days in treatment for a severe bacterial infection. Nursing was impossible, so his human keepers filled in as surrogate parents, bottle-feeding the young calf three to five times a day. After extensive care, Leroy made a full recovery and was welcomed back into his herd with kisses and nose rubs in April.
The endangered Grevy’s zebra population saw a tiny black-and-white boost when Bakavu gave birth to her fifth foal, Tanu, on January 3. Tanu was able to tell his mother apart from other zebras in the herd and knew to stay close to her by memorizing Bakavu’s unique stripe pattern.
Parvesh, which means lord of celebration in Hindi, was born on February 25 to mother Alta and father Bophu. When he was nine weeks old, the greater one-horned rhino calf moved into the Asian Plains habitat and started making his own rules. Parvesh’s charming personality demands the attention of our guests.
When Imani had her first baby on March 12, the 18-year-old mother had to be sedated and whisked to the Harter Veterinary Medical Center for an emergency C-section. The fragile infant, named Joanne, stayed at the veterinary hospital for round-the-clock care. Due to the long labor, Joanne was having trouble breathing, and it turned out that she had a collapsed lung and pneumonia. Twelve days later, the baby was laid down in a nest of soft hay in the gorilla bedroom, and Imani was let in. The moment Joanne was reunited with her mother will forever live in our hearts. This gorilla’s story was (and still is) incredible.
Ruuxa and Raina became an overnight sensation. The six-week-old cheetah cub and seven-week-old Rhodesian ridgeback were the youngest animal ambassador pairing since the program began. Shortly after their introduction, Ruuxa underwent surgery to repair a growth abnormality in his limbs. Raina, whose name means guardian, stayed by the cheetah cub’s side throughout the procedure and continues to be an attentive and loyal friend.
Gestation for okapis can last from 14 to 16 months, so the birth of Jackson in July was a highly anticipated event. The curious calf stayed close to his mother but kicked his way into our hearts as well.
Our very first wattled crane chick shuffled its way into our hearts this summer. Wattled cranes are the rarest crane species found in Africa, so this chick was (and still is) a treasure.
We have a total of 134 Ugandan giraffes and 23 reticulated giraffes, but the births of Gowon and Kamau in July marked the first time Masai giraffes have been born at the Safari Park. While Masai giraffes are the most populous of the subspecies, all wild populations have decreased significantly since the late 1990s, due to habitat loss and competition with livestock for resources. Both are aptly named in the Masai language: Gowon (pronounced Go-wan) means maker of rain and Kamau (pronounced Kam-mao) means little warrior.
Four little rascals debuted at Lion Camp this fall and almost doubled the size of our pride. Cubs Ernest, Evelyn, Marion, and Miss Ellen were born on June 22 but spent several months bonding with their mother, Oshana, behind the scenes. The cubs now spend their days pouncing, climbing, and testing the patience of their big cat parents.
Ayanna and Bahati received around-the-clock care at our Animal Care Center for the past few months. The cubs were born at the Safari Park’s Cheetah Breeding Center to Allie, but animal care staff decided to hand-rear the females because their mother has been unsuccessful with previous litters. Now, the female cubs have advanced in their training and have moved to different areas of the Park, awaiting their puppy companions.
Luke has been turning heads since his arrival in September. For decades, we’ve successfully bred over 20,000 rare and endangered animals, including 278 ellipsen waterbuck, but Luke is the first-ever animal born at the Park with a condition that causes him to have reduced pigmentation. He’s a stand-out guy and receives a lot of attention from guests taking a ride on the Africa Tram.
Our 67th greater one-horned rhino, named Petunia, debuted in the Asian Plains exhibit after one month of close care. The calf weighed only 128 pounds (58 kilograms) at birth, which is small for her species, so animal care staff kept a 24-hour watch on the newborn until she was ready to leave her protected yard in September. Petunia and her mother, Tanaya, have been blooming and exploring their 40-acre (16 hectares) home since.
Did you hear? Our satellite herd at the Reid Park Zoo in Tuscon, Arizona, got an adorable little boost with big ears this year. The African elephant calf named Nandi is doing well and enjoying time with her herd at the Click Family Elephant Care Center.
Four adorable cheetah cubs were born to first-time mother Addison in July at our off-site breeding center. Wgasa, Reu, Pumzika, Mahala, and their mother moved into the Okvango Outpost (and our hearts) last month. It’s certainly wonderful to see so many spots and to watch a cheetah mother raising her cubs.
Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 10 Festive Reindeer Facts.
A 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.