Making rhino history: Sumatran rhino calf Andatu

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2012. Author: Susie Ellis, PhD Executive Director, International Rhino Foundation and Dedi Candra, Animal Collections Manager, SRS, Yayasan Badak Indonesia)

As if timing his arrival to perfectly coincide with 2012-13 as International Year of the Rhino, Sumatran rhino calf “Andatu” was born at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in the wee hours of 23 June. This is the first Sumatran rhino birth at a breeding centre in Indonesia, and has been heralded as a critical step towards the species’ conservation

In addition to being a tribute to international collaboration, Andatu’s birth also represents an engaging boy-meets-girl story. Andatu’s sire, Andalas, was born in 2001 at the Cincinnati Zoo – the first Sumatran rhino born in a zoo in more than 112 years. He was moved from Cincinnati in 2004 to the Los Angeles Zoo to make room for his mother’s next calf. (Cow Emi went on to produce two more calves.) In 2007, Andalas was shipped to Indonesia’s Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS), built by the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) in 1996 in Way Kambas National Park. The SRS now is managed by the Rhino Foundation of Indonesia (Yayasan Badak Indonesia or YABI) in partnership with IRF. Three potential mates awaited Andalas – Bina, Ratu and Rosa – none of them proven breeders.

Andatu at 10 hoursBy the time he was 9, Andalas was sexually mature. Although he was interested in females, we undertook introductions with caution, as with most rhino breeding, aggression can quickly get out of hand. Fortunately, the 100-hectare sanctuary provides spacious forest enclosures for each animal, as well as the capacity to carefully manage their interactions. Andalas and Ratu mated in January 2010, and that attempt, regrettably, ended in miscarriage a few months later; a second pregnancy ended the same way. Finally, after a third mating in March 2011, Ratu’s veterinarians made the decision to put her on the same progesterone therapy that had enabled Andalas’ mother, Emi, to carry him to term. Ratu completed the 16-month pregnancy and gave birth to Andatu shortly after midnight on 23 June, attended by the SRS veterinarian and keepers, backed up by vets from Taronga Conservation Society Australia, White Oak Conservation Centre, and a seasoned keeper from the Cincinnati Zoo.

Videos of Andatu’s midnight delivery and his subsequent antics have received countless hits on YouTube. Andatu even has his own Facebook page, to which friend requests continually arrive. He could easily be the world’s most famous rhino this year – he is aiming to have 1,000 friends by 22 September, World Rhino Day!

Baby Sumatran rhino Andatu

In addition to increasing the world captive population of Sumatran rhinos by 10%, Andatu’s birth also helps draw attention to the species’ sobering plight. The Sumatran rhino is Critically Endangered; between 130 and 190 individuals are believed to survive in Indonesia and Sabah, Malaysia. Its final strongholds are three Sumatran National Parks: Bukit Barisan Selatan, Way Kambas, and Gunung Leuser. The IRF funds and operates protection programmes in the first two and works in partnership with a rhino NGO in Leuser. The fragmented Malaysian population probably numbers no more than two dozen scattered individuals and is now considered non-viable if managed as a distinct subspecies in isolation from the Sumatran population.

Andatu at 4 days oldWhile the birth of a single animal does not constitute species recovery, it verifies that good science and international commitment can yield desired results. Ultimately, the successful breeding of Sumatran rhinos in captivity, coordinated with the management of wild populations, should result in a metapopulation management strategy that includes translocating animals between protected areas, reintroducing captive-born Sumatran rhinos to native habitats, and re-establishing extirpated populations within the species’ former range.

The IRF is grateful to Save the Rhino for support of our programmes and we look forward to a long and productive partnership!

For more information on IRF’s work, please visit www.rhinos.org or email s.ellis@rhinos.org.

Credits: Dedi Candra, YABI; Susie Ellis, IRF