Medicine’s loss is gain for KZN rhinos

2010-07-19 00:00

IT’S a long way from a Californian surgery to an African game reserve, but that’s the career choice Roz Anderson-Lederer made, and she’s never­ regretted a minute of it. Anderson-Lederer, a surgical assistant in a San Diego hospital, was doing a biology­ degree with a view to becoming a doctor. One summer she did an internship at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, studying Californian least terns, an endangered shore bird.

“Camp Pendleton is a military base, and marines need to train. Every day they would go by our nesting sites in huge amphibian assault vehicles. The nesting area is cordoned off but the birds don’t always pay attention to fences. We biologists weren’t exactly the marines’ most popular sight when we would arrive in our truck and say: ‘Sorry guys, you can’t get in your big tanks today because the bird laid an egg’.”

Early in the season the sight and sound of the vehicles roaring onto land would startle the tern colony, but they got used to it and after a while only the biologists caused them to rise into the air. “Least terns do mobbing, which essentially means they would swoop on us and poo on us. I was often covered with endangered species faeces­.”

After mock interviews for medical school, one professor said to Anderson-Lederer: “You’ll be a fantastic physician, but the only time you became animated was when you talked about your internship. Would you ever­ consider becoming a wildlife biologist­ instead?”

She hadn’t, but the seed was planted and three years later she was in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, taking part in captures of black rhino for the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, a partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. She’s doing her doctorate through Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, focusing on the population genetics­ of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park’s black rhino. Most of the black rhino that are moved to form new populations through the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project come from the park.

“Translocations of black rhino out of but not into Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park have been going on since the sixties­ so there is concern about inbreeding. If you capture some to start another reserve, you are in essence pushing them through another genetic bottleneck. We don’t know if the ones we have captured have a diverse genetic background and we want to make sure that the new population has the best hand-up it can to be reproductively successful.”

So far mitochondrial and nuclear DNA show little genetic diversity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean doom and gloom, Anderson-Lederer says. She is also looking at the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) gene which is responsible for disease resistance, parasite load and mate choice.

“Other species (such as the Channel Island fox) have shown low variability in mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, but have super-variable MHC and that has helped them along. If there was low variability at MHC there might be a lower birth rate but we’re not really seeing that here.”

Anderson-Lederer had seen a baby black rhino called Limpopo at the San Diego zoo (“the cutest thing on the planet”) but was completely unprepared for the fury and strength of a car-sized piece of muscle that is a full-grown black rhino in the wild. “It was indescribable. I had thought that the animal would get darted, then immediately get sleepy and fall down. Instead he was charging off and the helicopter was trying to herd him away from a ravine. I remember the helicopter tilting and the rhino charging the helicopter. I couldn’t speak. I kept thinking ‘this can’t be happening, this isn’t real’.”

With her heart racing and desperate not to get in the way or do anything wrong, Anderson-Lederer took blood and tissue samples for her own work, and dung samples for the work of a colleague. At that first capture which she joined, the animal was in distress — a constant worry even though the staff and techniques have become so sophisticated. As a former surgical assistant Anderson-Lederer was deeply impressed with how the attendant vets handled the situation. “I was so overwhelmed — they were so professional yet so compassionate at the same time. You knew it was killing them that something was wrong. They didn’t want to lose a patient.” (The rhino survived and was soon browsing on Acacia karoo in the game-capture bomas.)

Living in a game reserve in Africa was a culture shock at first, but the only creature comfort Anderson-Lederer really missed was ice. “There’s so much going on. You’re typing on your laptop with the battery on reserve and you look out the window and there’s a herd of zebras or a pack of wild dogs going by. In the evening you fall asleep to the whooping of hyenas­, and you wake up because elephants are tearing branches off trees. The only thing separating you is a cement­ wall and a glass window. It’s a little bit nerve-racking knowing you’re on the food chain.”

Anderson-Lederer is “overwhelmingly pleased” with the choice she made. “My life has been so enriched by the research that I’m doing. When I’m in New Zealand I’m stuck in a lab, I work all-nighters and don’t sleep much, but the few months every year that I am in the field, it’s like being reconnected to humanity and the planet. You realise your place and that you’re not really as special as you think you are. If everyone would just take the time to stop long enough to listen to what the planet has to say, I think they’d be really surprised with the song that is being sung.”

The song is about where we’ve come from, how much we’ve changed and how much we’ve lost along the way, Anderson-Lederer says. She believes her research and that of thousands of other dedicated people around the world can help us find the way back. “With every species we lose the song becomes quieter. There used to be this whole orchestra. Now we’re down to a chamber choir. If we don’t pay attention the song will fall silent.”

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