A Cincinnati Rhino's DNA May Help Save The Sumatran Species

Feb 5, 2018

A Marshall University biology professor and his staff have successfully sequenced and analyzed the DNA of Ipuh, a Sumatran rhino who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo for 22 years. Its genome could answer specific questions about health and reproduction problems that has led to the decline of this endangered species.

A recent issue of Current Biology details the findings. Dr. Herman Mays Jr. estimates that Sumatran rhinos peaked at a population of about 57,000 an estimated 950,000 years ago. The numbers were reduced to 700 by 9,000 years ago. Today scientists say there are only 100 Sumatran rhinos in the wild.

Other findings include:

  • Climate Change played a role with the rising and lowering of sea levels.
  • The added pressure of humans also contributed to the decline.

Dr. Terri Roth, the Cincinnati Zoo's Vice President of Conservation and Science, and director of CREW, anticipates looking at specific genes to study health and reproductive issues. Roth's research was key in three Sumatran rhinos being born at the Cincinnati Zoo, all fathered by Ipuh.

Ipuh sired three calves.
Credit Cincinnati Zoo

A half a world away at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, Harapan is finally ready to breed. It seems like only yesterday he said goodbye to the Cincinnati Zoo. Born in 2007, he was one of three rhinos to be sired at the zoo, spent some time in Los Angeles before returning to Cincinnati.

At the time Harapan was the only Sumatran rhino on display in the world. But in 2015, the Cincinnati Zoo decided to move him to Indonesia to help try to save the species. 

Another male the Cincinnati Zoo sent to Indonesia is contributing. He’s already sired two calves. The Zoo’s Vice President of Conservation and Science Teri Roth says there are only 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild, so time is of the essence.

“So there’s an emphasis now on breeding them. It took us many, many years to figure out how to breed the species. Thank goodness we did so when we did because if we were just learning how to do it now we would run out of time.”

The remaining rhinos are divided up among three parks in Sumatra. The Sumatran rhino is a species Roth describes as peaceful, and passive. “You know what I always ask people is: If this is a species that we’re not going to share the planet with, what are we going to share the planet with?”

Roth is optimistic because people are donating more money and the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary has doubled in size this past year. The next step she says is to round up wild rhinos in Sumatra and bring them to a sanctuary to expand the genetic pool when breeding.