Professor devoted to wildlife protection asks "what's the best way to relocate a rhinoceros?"
In 1992, just after graduating from veterinary school, Robin Radcliffe and his twin brother (also a veterinarian at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine) traveled to the African country of Botswana, where they saw rhinoceroses in the wild for the first time. Robin was astounded to see armed guards from the Botswana military protecting the animals, among the most endangered species in the world.
Two weeks later, he learned that those two animals had been poached. “It made me realize this is a serious problem, and one that I wanted to do something about,” he said.
Today, Radcliffe, an adjunct professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, has devoted his career to protecting rhinoceroses and other endangered species. His current project is investigating the safest ways to relocate rhinoceroses in Namibia to protect them from poachers and ensure genetic diversity among the remaining animals. The work is funded by the Morris Animal Foundation in collaboration with the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. (Radcliffe also works with endangered rhinoceros in Asia.)
“Rhino conservationists and managers have been moving rhinos for decades, but there are few systematic studies about the basic practices, ones that will help ensure the health of the animals in the process,” he said.
To find the rhinoceroses in the wild, the Department of National Parks sends out trackers on foot, then a spotter airplane, and finally a helicopter, which can follow the animals from one to two meters above the thorny acacia trees. A veterinarian in the helicopter darts the rhino with a specialized gun that injects a dart filled with anesthetic; then the helicopter team continues to track the animal until it shows signs of sedation.
The helicopter then guides in a ground team of game scouts, managers, and veterinarians who care for the rhino during the move.
For his study, Radcliffe assembled a team to monitor the rhinoceroses breathing patterns and blood gas chemistry during sedation. To do this, they constructed an apparatus consisting of large PVC pipes that allowed the researchers to separate the inhaled air from expired air.
To date, the team is making progress. They have gathered original findings that show the pros and cons of moving sedated rhinoceroses positioned on their bellies and their sides. (The prone position has proven to be better for ventilation, while the side position seems to improve circulation.) Now they plan to continue their studies to examine other factors about the transport process, including the type of anesthesia agent used.