Is Inbreeding Endangered Rhinos Ethical? Crossing Ethical Boundaries in Preserving Endangered Species

by Project Censored

The number of Sumatran Rhinos still living are rapidly decreasing. There are only an estimated one hundred of these rare endangered species roaming free in the wild. Not only are the Sumatran Rhinos endangered, there are a few other types of rhinos that are in crisis. There is a unique ethical issue that arises with the Sumatran rhinos. There are only two left in captivity. Researchers looking to solve this issue were faced with a very difficult decision. They decided to breed Harapan, a young undeveloped male rhino, and Suci, a 9 year old female, with hopes that they would produce offspring. The thing is, Harapan and Suci are brother and sister. Even though these endangered species are closely related, this does not stop the researcher’s efforts to fix the issue. The decision to breed the two animal’s shows how desperate they really are; but is it worth crossing an ethical boundary?


Student Researcher: Shelby Duncan, Indian River State College

Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College


Sumatran Rhinos were and are still becoming less populated every day. This major decrease in their population has opened the eyes of many researchers and conservationists. Along the way, these researchers had to face a very difficult and ethical issue. Sibling rhinos, Harapan and Suci, are the products of researcher’s last efforts to save the endangered species. This crisis was first recognized in 1984 when a group in Singapore put out a plan to protect these animals. Between 1985 and 1994, there were 40 Sumatran Rhinos captured with 7 sent to zoos in the United States. There these animals were kept for breeding purposes. Ten were sent to Sabah where two died from injuries due to capture and one from tetanus. Despite the efforts to breed the ones that survived, none of the rhinos produced offspring.

Unfortunately the efforts in the United States didn’t go much better. The researchers and zoo keepers in the United States knew little about the rhinos. The little experience was evident when zoo keepers fed the rhinos hay. Yes rhinos can eat hay but they can’t live on it. The weak knowledge about their nutrition led to 4 out of the 7 Sumatran Rhinos passing away. The last 3 remaining were located at three different zoos in the United States. This became an issue when breeding was needed. The two remaining females were sent to Cincinnati where the last remaining full male, Ipuh, was located. It was there where Roth began her research on the dietary and reproductive habits of the Sumatran Rhinos. She learned that Sumatra Rhinos are induced ovulators. This is when a female has to be in close proximity with a male in order to produce an egg. They quickly placed Emi, the last female able to produce, and Ipuh in the same pin. Emi immediately got pregnant but quickly lost the baby. This happened numerous times until she was placed on liquid hormone supplements. These seemed to help her greatly. She first gave birth to Suci, a female, and Harapan, a young undeveloped male.

This is where the story becomes an ethical debate. Suci and Harapan are full blooded brother and sister. They are intended to breed with each other in the hopes that they will produce offspring. John Payne, executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance and a member of the Sumatran Rhino Crisis Summit, states in the article, “In my strong opinion, the only way to save this species is to bring them into captivity and make them breed”. Payne then goes on to say, “This is the heart of the matter. That’s controversial. There’s people saying that’s not the way to do it.” Payne simply believes that the Rhinos should be saved no matter what actions are taken. People around the world have taken Rachel Carson’s quote, “problem of sharing our earth with other creatures” very seriously. She believes that as humans we should respect that animals live on this earth just like we do.

On the other hand, Sumatran researcher Terry Roth explains that if there is no long term solution to the issue it is wrong to continue to inbreed. Undoubtedly, there should be efforts to save the endangered Sumatran Rhinos, but if all reasonable efforts have been made and have not worked, we need to move on. Rhinos needed to be left to live in their natural habitat. The inbreeding of this brother and sister rhino will only eventually lead to extinction anyway.