Scientists collect faeces to get species out of the poo
Black rhino and other endangered animals to benefit from initiative that gleans vital health data from droppings
A team of UK-based scientists is collecting rhinoceros droppings for a new conservation initiative to help prevent global extinction of the endangered species.
In a collaboration dubbed “saving species with faeces”, the team from Chester Zoo and the University of Manchester aims to identify causes of poor population growth among Africa’s mega-herbivores, including eastern black rhinos, Grévy's zebras and Cape mountain zebras.
A major focus for the £1.1m initiative is the endangered black rhino, a species successfully bred in captivity at Chester Zoo in recent years and whose excrement is a source of useful data to understand the health of the animal.“Most of the research that we're doing to assess health and stress involves collecting a lot of poo,” Professor Susanne Shultz from the University of Manchester said.
“We want take these models that have been developed on captive animals and apply them to wild populations as well.”
The team uses hormonal bio-markers present in animal dung to understand stress and reproductive health in animals, with the advantage that it can be collected without disturbing them.
“From the samples we can see how stressed the animals are, their condition and individual health, and if they are reproducing,” Dr Danielle Gilroy, who is leading a project on another endangered species, the Grévy's zebra, said.
Classed as critically endangered, there are 5,000-5,400 black rhinos living in eastern and southern Africa, according to the World Wildlife Fund.The initiative not only hopes to look at the human and environmental effects on wild populations, with some faring better than others, but also to develop a strategy to promote natural reproduction.
“We could not just think about zoos but also of populations in their natural range, such as in Kenya,” Dr Sue Walker, head of applied science at Chester Zoo, said.“We think of them as one metapopulation and we can apply the same toolkit to understand why the animals in Kenya might not be breeding as well. The most important thing we can do is maximise reproduction in these animals.”
Kenya had a rhino population of 1,258 in 2017, of which 745 were black rhinos, 510 southern white rhinos and three northern white rhinos, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.
But Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, died in Kenya in March, leaving only two females of the subspecies alive in the world.