December 17, 1996 in Nation/World

China And Zoo Kept Rhino Deaths Quiet San Diego Zoo Was Negotiating Panda Deal At The Time

Tony Perry Los Angeles Times

When the San Diego Zoological Society arranged last summer to send two rare southern white rhinos from Pittsburgh to a zoo in China, the move was hailed as an example of international cooperation in the fight to save imperiled wildlife.

But now the Chinese have confirmed the embarrassing secret that they and San Diego Zoo officials have kept for five months: the two 4,000-pound animals died of dehydration and heat stroke while being trucked along the 1,650-mile route from Shanghai to Chengdu.

The deaths have left the Chinese scrambling to explain why they ignored the explicit instructions given by San Diego Zoo officials about how to transport the big animals, which were destined for a breeding program.

And in San Diego, the zoo is at pains to be diplomatic, lest the incident damage the relationship between the zoological society and the ever-touchy Chinese bureaucracy, a relationship that culminated in a major coup last September for San Diego, the loan of two giant pandas.

“We’re very unhappy and very frustrated,” said Tom Hanscom, spokesman for the San Diego Zoological Society’s Wild Animal Park. “But we’re not pointing any fingers because we’re not sure what occurred.”

Hanscom said that since the rhinos were the property of the Chinese, the zoo did not feel it appropriate to announce the deaths. He denied that the zoo withheld the news for fear of upsetting the panda loan.

Richard Farinato, captive wildlife protection program director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the rhinos’ deaths call into question the Chinese commitment and competency in preserving animals.

“Those of us in the zoo and conservation communities know that China is a real question mark when it comes to animals, whether it’s incidents like this, breeding bears for the medicinal market, or sending pandas out to zoos for rent,” he said.

In Chengdu, animal expert Song Yunfang told reporters that the rhinos could not be taken from Shanghai to Chengdu by rail - as the San Diegans requested - because their van-sized crates were too big for rail cars.

The rail portion of the trip was to take no more than two days. But instead the rhinos were loaded in an open-top truck for a weeklong trip in 99-degree heat. The rhinos died July 21, the fifth day.

“We were all very sad and sorry,” Song told the Associated Press, noting that he felt the rhinos could withstand the rigorous trip. The Chengdu zoo is now arranging to have one of the rhinos stuffed as an attraction.

Farinato said that if the Chinese, or the San Diego Zoo, had assigned animal specialists to stay with the rhinos during the journey the big beasts might have been saved.

“An animal that size shows definite signs of stress,” Farinato said. “They thrash, they vocalize, they drop excrement. Their tongues and eyes look abnormal.”

Both the San Diego and Pittsburgh zoos have unsuccessfully requested that the Chinese make available any necropsy reports or post-mortem reports.

The two rhinos - a male and a female - were born at an amusement park in New Jersey in 1975 from the same father but different mothers. The species is native to southern Africa.

The two were sent to the Pittsburgh Zoo in 1977 but as half-siblings they were not considered compatible for breeding.

Also, because their father was a prodigious stud and many of the rhinos in America carry his bloodline, the two were considered “genetic surplus” for rhino breeding, according to Lee Nesler, general curator at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

“We’re devastated,” Nesler said of their deaths.

The two animals, in keeping with a Pittsburgh Zoo policy, were never given names. They were a major attraction at the zoo.

Earlier this year, San Diego Zoo officials approached the Pittsburgh Zoo about the possible purchase of the two rhinos.

The Chinese had asked the San Diego Zoo for assistance in finding white rhinos for breeding. For several years, the San Diego and Chengdu zoos have cooperated on conservation issues.

In the captive breeding of rhinos, the San Diego Zoo is considered a leader, with 77 births attributed to San Diego rhinos.

The Wild Animal Park in the San Pasqual Valley north of San Diego is run by the San Diego Zoological Society, as is the San Diego Zoo.

Officials of the species survival plan organized by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums asked San Diego not to ship any of its own rhinos to China because they were needed for breeding in North America.

With some reluctance, Pittsburgh officials agreed to part with their two white rhinos for $3,000. The San Diego Zoo also paid the $58,000 cost of transporting the rhinos by air from San Diego. Zoo officials had known of the deaths since informed by the Chinese on July 22. The secrecy of the rhino deaths was pierced Friday by Newsweek magazine.

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