Really Rare Rhinos Found by Dung-Sniffing Dogs

A dog named Pepper was trained to detect dung of the rare Javan rhino in the forests of Vietnam as part of a WWF project aimed at estimating the remaining population. (Image credit: © WWF Greater Mekong.)

We all know dogs like to smell just about everything, including other animals' poo. Now scientists have figured out how to put the canines' odd pastimes to work to help sniff out the dung of endangered rhinos in Vietnam.

The collected dung will help scientists to figure out how many Javan rhinos, also called Rhinoceros sondaicus, remain in the wild. The rhinos were considered extinct on mainland Southeast Asia until hunters in Vietnam killed one in 1988. Now two remaining populations exist, with an estimated 10 individuals in the forests of Vietnam and between 28 and 56 such rhinos on the island of Java, Indonesia.

"The Javan rhino is possibly the rarest large mammal on Earth," said Sarah Brook of WWF (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund) and leader of the rhino project in Vietnam. "This field survey aims to reveal the secrets of Vietnam's little known Javan rhino population in an effort to save it from extinction."

WWF researchers have teamed up with national park rangers to use two detection dogs from the United States to help determine the population of these single-horned rhinos in the forests of Vietnam. The two dogs, a Border Collie named Pepper and a Labrador named Chevy, have been trained to detect the endangered animal's dung. They would have to be retrained to nose out dung from another species.

Once the samples get collected, scientists will analyze them for DNA to determine the sex of that particular animal and ultimately the number of animals contributing to the dung. Hormone analyses could show each animal's breeding capability, a critical factor for such an endangered population.

So far, after five days of surveying the forest area, the canine duo has turned up seven rhino dung samples, the researchers said in a statement today.

The project team says such results give them confidence the dog-sniffing will work to gather the needed information. The results of these analyses will be used to formulate an urgent rhino conservation plan.

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