Worthy of Existence: Saving Wildlife from Extinction

April 21, 2020
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Extinction has a soft, leathery nose, is covered in thick black hair over pink skin, and has an affinity for bananas. Extinction has fuzzy ears, small but bright eyes, and “sings” as it eats. Extinction is one of seven protected rhinos in Taman Nasional Way Kambas in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Getting an insider’s look at the last Sumatran rhinos is a by-invitation only experience. My coworker Amy’s successful campaign to fundraise for the International Rhino Foundation’s annual Bowling for Rhinos event lead to an invitation by the International Rhino Foundation for her and a guest to come to Indonesia to visit the national parks her funds were helping: the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Taman Nasional Way Kambas, Taman Nasional Bukit Barisan Selatan in Sumatra, and Taman Nasional Ujung Kulon in Java. Both islands host two of the most endangered rhinos on Earth—the Javan rhino and the Sumatran rhino.

As a Dordt College junior in 2015, I had given a presentation to my Wildlife Ecology class about the Sumatran rhino. When I completed the research for that presentation, there was an estimated 100 individuals left. As Amy and I watch each of the sanctuary’s rhinos eating their breakfast and interacting with the rangers who protect them and study them each day, I think about what I told my six classmates during that presentation:

We don’t know much about them. They’re very secretive and hard to find.

Speaking to the rangers who patrol the national parks where the rhinos live, near the villages and towns where the rangers grew up, we ask each one, “How many times have you seen a wild rhino?”

For some, the answer is never. One man in Ujung Kulon has been a part of the rhino protection unit rangers since their inception 25 years ago. He has seen Javan rhinos four times, and then only brief glances as they disappear back into the forest. Another ranger in Way Kambas says that he was sent up a tree by an angry Sumatran rhino once.

Each one of these experiences are special to the rangers. The Javan rhinos number just 68 individuals, all hosted in Ujung Kulon, and the secretive Sumatran rhino could be as few as 30 individuals. Both species are hunted for their horns, made of the same material as your fingernails. Sumatran rhinos suffer further from habitat fragmentation, where human settlements and farmland the rhinos will not cross divide the forest into pieces. When the rhinos cannot find each other to breed, the females develop uterine polyps and cysts that make successful breeding nearly impossible. But these rhinos are only two of some of the world’s endangered species. Many of the animals you will encounter in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoo have wild numbers fewer than Sioux Center, IA: African wild dogs, Siberian tigers, Bactrian camels, snow leopards, black footed ferrets, black rhinos, Bali mynahs, cheetahs, black handed spider monkeys, cotton top tamarins, and mountain bongos, to name a few

But we are the ones who can slow and maybe even prevent the inevitable.

In Genesis, the first humans are commanded to fill the earth and to rule over the animals. When we hear the word “rule,” we may think of a king, doing what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. But leaders should take control with wisdom, seeking to benefit all in order to benefit themselves. All animals have a reason and a purpose for living; we are not the ones who get to decide what is worthy of existence.

Asian elephants, like the ones I care for at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, are classified as endangered, with current estimates at 30,000 individuals. There are fewer every day, due to human-elephant conflict. The historic range of the Asian elephant once extended from China to Iran, throughout the Indian subcontinent. Now, Asian elephants inhabit just 6% of their former range, and that percentage shrinks daily as the human population grows.

People need land, too, I tell zoo guests, but so do the elephants. The elephants don’t know that it’s not theirs anymore. But you can help us save them.

There are more threats to Asian elephants besides human conflict. Asian and African elephants both carry a virus called elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, called EEHV for short. This virus, when it enters the bloodstream, can kill young Asian elephant calves and older African elephant calves; only 40% of Asian elephants reach their eighth birthday due to EEHV.

That’s where humans come in.

We train our elephants from the day they’re born, though we begin formal training with them around three months old. The elephants become active participants in their own healthcare, voluntarily contributing blood samples and trunk washes for us so that we can test for EEHV with our in-house polymerase chain reaction machine (PCR). The Oklahoma City Zoo is one of two AZA-accredited zoos in the U.S. with the ability to test elephant samples on site this way. Through PCR, the OKC Zoo’s vet team can diagnose EEHV in elephant calves before they begin showing clinical symptoms, and begin treatment before it’s too late to save them. With a single calf born every five years or so, each calf is critically important in the fight to save Asian elephants.

The OKC Zoo has a program its guests can participate in called Round Up for Conservation. Every time a guest makes a purchase, they are asked, “Would you like to round up your change for conservation?” When the guests say yes, that change goes into a fund to help save endangered species and wildlife habitat. Through Round Up for Conservation, the Zoo has raised over $475,000 for wildlife and wild places since the program’s start in 2011. Two of the Round Up for Conservation projects being funded this year is for EEHV research to develop a vaccine and veterinary support for EEHV monitoring and care in Asian elephants’ native countries. These projects are both being funded completely through the guests’ generosity, both in Oklahoma or around the world, to save a species in crisis.

Other animals in even more dire straits have been brought back from the brink of extinction because of humans, too. The California condor, scimitar horned oryx, black footed ferret, Kihansi spray toad, Prezwalski’s horse, and Pere David’s deer are just some of the species that zoos have reintroduced back into the wild. Still more are being researched and studied in their native ranges and in zoos so that we can begin to save them, too.

Combatting extinction is a team affair, after all. When we save wildlife and wild places, we ultimately cultivate a better world for ourselves, as God intended.

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