Courtesy of Robin Radcliffe

Radcliffe's research team monitors the physiological wellbeing of a rhino transported upside-down.

October 19, 2021

Cornell Vet Turns Rhino Transport on its Head

Print More

Cornell researchers have discovered that the best way rhinos can fly is upside-down.

Prof. Robin Radcliffe, wildlife veterinarian and director of the Cornell Conservation Medicine program, and his team were recognized for taking wild rhino transportation airborne with the Ig Nobel Prize, which celebrates “scientific achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” 

“The only downside of lifting them upside down is the rhinos weren’t made to land on their backs,” Pete Morkel, a member of Radcliffe’s veterinary team, said. “So, we bought ourselves a nice big mattress, and we were dashing around trying to get this mattress under the rhino as it came down.” 

While some national parks, zoos, conservation sites and other community-lead preserves use helicopters, generally rhinos are transported on their sides on a heavy sledge, a metal piece of equipment that resembles a stretcher. The main struggle with either method, according to Morkel, is transporting these beasts that can weigh up to 6000 pounds. 

Courtesy of the Namibian Ministry of the Environment, Forestry and Tourism

While taking rhinos to the sky has become increasingly common, the effects of these helicopter joyrides on the animals had not been studied. Radcliffe and his team took it upon themselves to understand how the more efficient, cheaper method could affect the rhino’s internal organs — particularly their lungs and heart. 

Radcliffe partnered with the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, to strap 12 anesthetized black rhinos by their ankles, suspend them upside down in the air by a crane and measure their physical conditions, such as oxygen levels, heart rate and partial pressure of gases in their lungs. 

The team initially suspected that being upside down could be worse for the rhinos considering the additional pressure on their joints and internal organs, according to Morkel. Body positioning is vital in maintaining proper airway and blood circulation, and can be compromised when the weight of the animal is pressing down against their internal organs. Therefore, keeping rhinos under anesthesia is a delicate process.  

To the team’s surprise, the rhinos had higher oxygen levels and coped better than when the rhinos were transported on their sides, a promising sign for the new method. 

To further test this new mode of transportation Radcliffe’s team took to the skies for a 30 minute helicopter ride, in a simulated transportation of the rhinos, where they reported the animals responded well to the journey.

Although the experiment was a success and the new method proved useful, Radcliffe and his team had to navigate challenges.

“Wildlife veterinarians must really learn to think outside the box,” Radcliffe said. ”Our talented field team in Namibia — including rhino managers, biologists, ecologists, field rangers and veterinarians — have met these challenges through careful planning and lots and lots of innovation!”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the current wild rhino populations are a measly 5 percent of what they used to be at the start of the 20th century due primarily to illegal poaching and habitat loss. The Black rhino, one of three species that are on the critically endangered list, has made a home in the country Namibia, where Radcliffe conducted his research.

“The work we are doing in Namibia may also help Indonesia in efforts to save the rarest rhinos of all — the Sumatran and Javan rhinoceroses that live in the rainforest,” Radcliffe said. Radcliffe and his team have been working in Namibia for over a decade to improve the management and conservation of wild rhinoceroses. Protecting these endangered species has proved to be complex work, given their large size, limited habitat space and the market demand for their horns, which some believe to contain medicinal properties.

Radcliffe’s fascination with rhinoceroses began when he visited Botswana as a student and got to see his first wild rhino, and he focused in on conservation when he learned that the same rhinos he saw were killed by poachers just a few weeks after his visit.

Morkel said that receiving the Ig Nobel Prize felt gratifying, but more importantly, it raises awareness for other wildlife veterinarians’ innovative fieldwork, and helps the often-misunderstood rhinos.

“Rhinoceroses are not evil dinosaurs, but are actually sweet natured, playful, underestimated creatures,” Morkel said.