Mitigating the adverse effects of etorphine-based capture in white rhinoceros

Principal Investigator: Robin D. Gleed

Co-PI: Leith C. R. Meyer

Department of Clinical Sciences
Sponsor: John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation
Title: Mitigating the adverse effects of etorphine-based capture in white rhinoceros
Project Period: January 2017 to December 2020

DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): 

White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) are classified as "near-threatened" due to poaching and must be managed actively to ensure their conservation. Management of wild rhinoceros requires capture by chemical immobilization; unfortunately, this induces profound physiological derangements, including severe hypoxemia. The hypoxemia is likely due to the adverse cardiopulmonary effects of the potent opioid used for immobilization, etorphine, combined with extreme exertion during capture in the field. Hypoxemia may result in morbidity and mortality. In other species given etorphine, hypoxemia has been attributed to pulmonary hypertension.

Observing the effects of etorphine on pulmonary blood pressure and flow in white rhinoceros habituated to captivity in bomas without the confounding effects of exertion or other drugs would help determine some of the mechanisms responsible for hypoxemia in these animals. Drugs that might be co-administered with etorphine could then be tested for their ability to mitigate the hypoxemia first in captivity and then in the field. The findings would underpin evidence-based recommendations that could result in immediate improvement in the safety of capture for white rhinoceros and contribute to their conservation.

In year one, the first aim is to measure partial pressure of arterial oxygen (PaO2), pulmonary vascular pressures (pulmonary artery pressure [PAP], pulmonary artery occlusion pressure [PAOP]), pulmonary flow (cardiac output [Q]), and other cardiopulmonary variables in boma-habituated white rhinoceros immobilized with etorphine only. The second aim is to compare these values to those measured in white rhinoceros immobilized with etorphine plus azaperone or etorphine plus midazolam to determine whether co-administration of these synergistically-acting immobilizing drugs mitigates etorphine-induced hypoxemia. Eight subadult, male, white rhinoceros will be captured, habituated to captivity, and then assigned to receive each of the three protocols in random order, separated by a 2 week washout period. This will take 6-8 weeks in total.

In year two, the objective is to measure the same variables in free-ranging white rhinoceros immobilized via aerial darting with etorphine plus azaperone or etorphine plus midazolam to determine the effects of helicopter pursuit on these variables and whether either azaperone or midazolam mitigates hypoxemia. Thirty rhinoceros will be assigned via block randomization to receive either etorphine plus azaperone (n = 15) or etorphine plus midazolam (n = 15). A month or less will be required to immobilize all 30 rhinoceros.