The Annals of Improbable Research award for scientific humor recognizes projects that “first make people laugh, then make them think.”
A recent study that suspended a rhinoceros upside down by its ankle from a helicopter should be a shoe in the award judges, receiving the 2021 Ig Nobel Transportation Prize. But while the suspended rhinoceros produces stunningly absurd images, behind the award and the study lies serious work. .
The rhinoceros is in trouble. There are five species of rhinoceros, all of which are endangered. The three-ton white rhino is the least endangered, yet only an estimated 20,000 remain in the wild. The upside-down species in the study is the black rhino, which weighs 1.5 tons and has an estimated population of just 5,000.
In attempts to protect rhino populations, conservationists have attempted antler removal (to try to make rhinos less attractive to poachers), relocation (moving rhinos, including upside down via helicopter), and even resurrection (making embryos from eggs and sperm, or even the DNA of deceased individuals).
We relocate rhinos because they live within guarded and fenced areas to keep them in check — and protect them, in theory, from poaching for rhino horns, which is the main threat. But this prevents animals from colonizing new areas, recolonizing empty areas, or mixing genes between areas.
So conservationists have to lend a hand – or helicopter – to put the rhinos into new areas. But until the Ig Nobel-winning study, we weren’t quite sure if this inverted transport was actually safe for the rhinos in question.
Trapping large mammals and transporting them to other locations can be dangerous and disruptive to the welfare of the animals involved. Large African mammals, including elephants, giraffes, and rhinos, are physiologically sensitive. The entire process of picking up and moving can lead to psychological and physiological stress. If such animals are given too large a dose of sedatives, or left in the wrong position under sedation, they can die.
Historically, methods of wildlife transportation have been informal and experimental, with successful methods spreading by word of mouth. Increasingly, this ad hoc approach has been replaced by formal scientific research, either to support perceived wisdom, or to introduce new innovations.
It is therefore important, for reasons of animal health and welfare only, that the procedures applied for catching and transporting large animals are as safe and unobtrusive as possible.
For several years, the African rhino was transported by hanging upside down from a helicopter, blindfolded and under the calm. In addition to enabling the capture and transportation of rhinos over short distances from areas inaccessible by road, helicopter transportation can mean shorter flight times, so it can be preferred for rhinos where practical.
But no one has ever found out whether hanging upside down is harmful to rhinos. Sure, unicorns look fine when they wake up at their final destination – but are they really okay after that?
This is where the science comes in. It might seem funny to deliberately hang 12 black rhinos upside down for 10 minutes just to monitor their jobs. But if no one does the research, no one knows if it is a safe way to transport an endangered animal.
The Ig Noble Prize-winning study compared the respiratory function and metabolic effects of rhinos when they were suspended by their ankles when the same animals were lying on their sides. The researchers found that the respiratory efficiency of an upside-down rhino, if present, was slightly better than if the rhino was laid on its side while calming down. Therefore, the process is at least confirmed by the quality of traditional transportation methods.
I have been involved in several capturing and transporting white rhinos in South Africa for my own research: collecting blood and saliva samples to assess the physiological stress associated with capture.
The teams I’ve worked with have also used helicopters, but only to pet the rhino with a soother from the air. The rhinos were then woken up as quickly as possible before being led, blindfolded and covered with ears, on crates of road trucking to locations several hours away. While transporting rhinos over long distances, it is neither economical nor healthy for the rhino to remain calm – therefore road transport is preferred.
While getting close to these fantastic beasts was humbling, and the capture experience rather exciting, my motivation for being there was science: collecting data on the effects of hunting, to inform and ultimately improve wildlife conservation.
However, I always felt sad that we should have put these sensitive and gentle giants through such an unnatural process in the first place. Unfortunately, we have no choice.
If we are to effectively save endangered species, we cannot leave them alone. They need to be managed, and that often means moving them to where they are safer from poaching, or to new areas to try to spread the population and diversify the local population.
We want such animals to survive the process of capture and transmission, and have as strong and healthy immune and reproductive systems as possible when released.
Achieving this requires knowledge. And if this science includes hanging a rhinoceros upside down, or any other seemingly weird and interesting research, let’s do it. The extinction of wildlife is no laughing matter, even if it throws in a strange opportunity to laugh as we learn.