Emi, the Sumatran rhino that delivered a record number of calves while in captivity, died this weekend, dealing a setback to the breeding programs that once called her the last hope to saving the endangered species.
The 21-year-old rhino lived at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden for 14 years, becoming a crowd favorite and producing three calves, Andalas, Suci and Harapan.
Just eight years ago, the delivery of Andalas marked the first captive birth of a Sumatran rhino in more than a century and helped the zoo become an internationally known breeding program.
“The loss of an animal that’s as beloved and well-known as Emi is always heartbreaking,” said Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo. “But it’s important to remember, too, that we’re going to continue to work to save endangered species like this, and that Emi won’t be forgotten.”
In March, zoo caretakers say Emi appeared less energetic.
A round of tests yielded little information about why she lost weight and changed her eating routine, typically a healthy dose of bananas, apples and other foods.
Then Emi appeared to rebound, despite blood work that indicated subtle changes in her liver. But she never fully recovered.
Early Saturday, workers discovered the world-renowned rhino on the ground. She had died in her sleep.
The zoo conducted a necropsy, and tissue samples will be sent to a veterinary pathologist to help determine exactly how the rare rhino died. Results are expected back within the next week.
On Sunday afternoon, children climbed rhino statues erected near the zoo entrance. Most visitors who planned to see the animals had no idea Emi had died.
Inside, the two remaining Sumatrans – Suci and her father, Ipuh – roamed their mud-filled quarters.
A group of about two dozen surprised guests gasped and shook their heads after Maynard announced Emi’s death.
“Oh, that’s so sad. I can’t believe it,” said Mindy Harris of Oak Hill, W.Va., as three of her four children peered inside the popular exhibit. “I hope they’ll bring in another rhino soon, so (Ipuh) won’t be all alone.”
Even though Emi is gone, there might still be a chance for future captivity breeding in Cincinnati.
Zoo researchers removed eggs from her body in hopes of using them to produce a calf through in-vitro fertilization or other means.
Suci is 5 and a year shy of puberty, and could boast the same reproductive success as Emi, Maynard said.
Early attempts to breed Cincinnati-based Sumatrans failed.
It wasn’t until a decade later when Emi, after miscarriages and combative courtships with Ipuh, gave birth to her first calf.
Part of the problem, zoo officials said, was that very little was known about how to care for or breed the animals.
Under the direction of Dr. Terri Roth, zoo researchers used ultrasound, monitored hormone levels and conducted lengthy observations to gain most of their knowledge.
“No one knew what to expect from the first day she turned up pregnant. We learned more from her breeding than anyone would have hoped or predicted,” Maynard said.
Although Sumatrans are solitary animals, Emi, described as friendly and easy-going, immediately picked up nurturing traits.
“When her calves wallowed because they couldn’t see their mom, she ran right over,” Maynard recalled. “She was truly a great mother.”
Zoo officials say they are optimistic they will be able to build on the unprecedented success they’ve had.
“Our fond hope is that by building on that, Emi certainly won’t be last Sumatran rhino to breed in captivity, and that the program will grow and continue from here and be one that helps a great deal,” Maynard said.
Breeding efforts are a race against time, though, as the rhinos continue to die or disappear because of habitat loss and poachers. Poachers kill them for their horns, hot commodities on the black market in China, Japan, Thailand and India where they are used for folk medicines and aphrodisiacs.
Sumatrans are considered the most endangered of the five living rhino species. At an average of 1,500 pounds, the rhinos, with their long, reddish-gray hair, are also the smallest.
Only nine Sumatran rhinos live in captivity worldwide. Three live in the United States, including two here. Andalas is taking part in an international breeding program at an Indonesian sanctuary, and Harapan, or “Harry,” was sent to a conservation center near Jacksonville, Fla.
Fewer than 200 exist in the wild, living mostly in isolated pockets of Sabah, Malaysia and the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Sumatrans have a life span of up to 40 years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
By Amber Ellis • aellis @ enquirer.com • September 6, 2009