Queen's biologists warm on the trail of disappearing rhinos
When a one-horned Javan rhinocerous – among the world’s rarest animals – was discovered dead last month in a Vietnamese game preserve, officials called on Queen’s University biologists Peter Van Coerverden de Groot and Peter Boag.
They wanted to determine if this rhino may have been the last of its species in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park. To help solve the mystery, officials from the World Wildlife Fund in Vietnam have mailed samples from the animal’s carcass to the molecular ecology laboratory of Queen’s biologist Peter Boag, where Dr. de Groot works.
An expert in genetic analysis, Dr. de Groot uses high-tech techniques such as microsatellite DNA on samples of tissue and feces to identify individual animals and learn their breeding and movement patterns. The Queen’s team is completing a population status survey of the Vietnamese park’s remaining rhinos, funded by the WWF and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. “It is exceedingly delicate, time-consuming and rather expensive work,” says Dr. de Groot.
“This has the potential to be the ultimate non-invasive tool,” he adds. “It gives us the best chance of estimating the number of remaining animals in a population and how best to manage them. Instead of using only theoretical and simulation models, we’re letting the system itself guide us.”
Because of the Javan rhino’s rarity, the biggest challenge is finding fresh tissue samples to optimize molecular markers. Some – like the one from Cat Tien park – come from the carcasses of poached animals whose horns have been removed for use in traditional medicine.
The Queen’s Javan study is the first to develop the molecular tools that have the best chance of accurately monitoring these rare rhinos. Prior to this type of testing, conservation efforts were based on habitat protection and attempts to create databases of the elusive animals using remote cameras and tracking methods.
Drs. de Groot and Boag hope their method will allow more accurate and timely census estimates of the remaining Javan rhinos in Vietnam and Indonesia.