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6 Audacious Efforts to Save Endangered Rhinos

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It’s World Rhino Day, a day to celebrate what little time we have left with dwindling numbers of rhinoceroses. Most rhinoceros species are critically endangered, and some subspecies that were plentiful in the 1900s, such as the western black rhino, have already gone extinct from hunting, poaching, and habitat encroachment by farms. Illegal poaching—largely in pursuit of the rhinoceros horns that can fetch $30,000 a pound on the black market—kills a rhino every eight hours in South Africa alone, according to 2014 estimates. The northern white rhino subspecies, for one, is down to four individuals, all considered geriatric by rhino standards. 

As rhino numbers dwindle, conservation efforts have had to get more creative. Here are six proposals that might help save the rhinoceros. 


As part of a system called the Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device (RAPID), a group of British researchers suggest outfitting endangered rhinos with hidden cameras embedded in their horns. In combination with a heart rate monitor and GPS, the system would alert authorities if a rhino was felled by a poacher. Rangers could then helicopter into the exact location of the kill, and hopefully prosecute the poachers with the aid of the footage from the horn camera. 


Rhino poaching is at a record high right now in South Africa, where 393 of the animals were killed in just the first four months of 2015. Poachers target rhinos for their horns, which are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine (despite being the equivalent of giant nose-fingernails). One bioengineering startup, Pembient, argues that instead of merely trying to quash black market demand for horns, they could create synthetic versions. Pembient claims it can make a synthetic rhino horn that is genetically the same as the real deal. It’s being used as an ingredient in a skin care line, and one Beijing brewery is using it to make rhino horn beer. 


When certain subspecies of rhinoceros are so critically endangered that only a few individuals are left, rhino romance takes on a whole new  level of import. For Harapan, a Sumatran rhino born at the Cincinnati Zoo, there were no eligible mates in his hemisphere. When Harapan’s sister died without producing any offspring, the Cincinnati Zoo decided to send America’s last Sumatran rhino to a breeding facility in Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra. Hopefully there he’ll be able to find a lady love (or two!) and make beautiful rhino babies. 


In Kenya, the last male northern white rhino is protected around the clock by a series of armed guards. Sudan is the last male of his species who might be capable of breeding and, at 42, is getting on in years. But his caretakers at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy still hope he might be able to produce offspring with his two female companions, who also sport radio transmitters and security details to protect them from horn hunters. The only other male northern white rhino died last year, and the subspecies is believed to only exist in captivity, making it understandable that Sudan has a security detail that rivals the U.S. president’s. 


As part of an effort to stop elephant and rhino poaching, the Lindbergh Foundation launched Air Shepherd, a program to deter poachers with drones. Teams fly remotely piloted aircraft with night-vision cameras near potential poaching sites (as determined by a predictive algorithm) and communicate via radio with rangers on the ground who can stop any poachers in the area that the drones' cameras spot. 


An initiative called Rhinos Without Borders, started by filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, aims to simply move rhinos out of danger. The crowdfunded effort aims to airlift rhinos from South Africa, where some 80 percent of Africa’s rhinos live, to Botswana, where there are currently fewer poachers on the hunt for horns. Each rhino move costs around $45,000, and the group has moved 10 so far. They plan to move at least 100 in total.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]


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