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Better Nutrition Leads to Better Health for Black Rhinos

by Heidi Jeter
From AnimalNews 9.1

Living in the grasslands, savannahs and bush lands of Africa, the black rhino is one of the world's most majestic creatures—and, sadly, one of the most endangered. Of all the rhino species, the black rhino suffers from the most drastic decline. Between 1970 and 1992, its population plummeted by 96 percent. In fact, by 1993, only 2,300 remained in the wild.

The good news—intensive antipoaching efforts and management of the remaining populations increased the, population to an estimated 3,600 by 2003. However, the health of wild and captive individuals remains critical to ensuring genetic diversity of the rhino species.

Nutrition plays a major role in a species' overall health because inappropriate nutrition can cause disease, obesity and  reproductive issues. Captive rhinos suffer from several diseases related to iron concentrations in their blood that have never been reported in wild rhinos. Dr. Stephane Helary at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, wanted to identify the dietary differences that may prompt iron-related diseases. He received a Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) Fellowship Training Grant to study this issue under the mentorship of Dr. Norman Owen-Smith.

"Our research shows that iron concentration in the diets of wild rhinos is three to five times lower than in the diets of captive rhinos," Helary says.

In addition, captive rhino diets are too low in fiber and too rich in protein, which has led to high levels of obesity that, in turn, causes foot problems and reproductive disorders. "Special attention must be given to the type of roughage and its proportion when formulating diets for captive browsing rhinos," Helary explains.

Helary presented his discoveries at major international conferences in Australia and the United Kingdom so they can be incorporated into captive management practices. His work also will help wild populations survive. The team identified key plant species, which wild black rhino populations rely on during the dry season, that need close monitoring so that conservation managers can adjust the number of rhinos that can be supported in these areas. These findings were provided to three national parks and reserves where the study was conducted.

In addition to improving rhino health, the MAF grant helped Helary complete his PhD and gave him significant recognition from the scientific community, which will help him in his career as a conservationist and a researcher.

The good work won't end with this project either. Other researchers already are conducting further studies to better understand the questions raised by this project.

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