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The Rhino Doctors
Robin Radcliffe inspires an appreciation for the Rhino.
ONE TWIN WENT DOMESTIC. THE OTHER WENT WILD.
But during the past few years, both Dr. Robin Radcliffe and his brother Dr. Rolfe Radcliffe have combined their veterinary skills to help save endangered rhinos worldwide, all while promoting conservation through literature, photography and even dance.
The twin brothers, who grew up in Black River Falls and attended UW-River Falls in the mid-1980s, went on to veterinary school at the University of Minnesota. From there, they took different paths toward animal care.
Robin Radcliffe specializes in wildlife and has spent years tending to the endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, of which there are only 250 left on the planet. He has overseen a number of conservation projects to stem the decline of the Sumatran, and he now heads the Rhino Conservation Medicine Program in Indonesia. That project is a collaboration involving the International Rhino Foundation, Cornell University and the Texas-based Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.
Rolfe Radcliffe is a large-animal surgeon at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He teaches large-animal surgery at the university and is in charge of emergency services at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals. He specializes in horses and domestic animals, which has allowed him to accompany his brother on rhino projects around the world–the rhino and horse are similar in anatomy and physiology.
The Radcliffe brothers grew up tending to all sorts of animals in Black River Falls, a rural western Wisconsin town. Their parents routinely took the family on canoeing, hunting and fishing trips, instilling in the boys “an ethic of caring and a responsibility for living things,” Robin says. “Our early lives focused a lot around animals. We raised birds, rabbits, raccoons and other things that found their way into our family for whatever reason,” he adds.
Robin and Rolfe attended UW-River Falls for its strong pre-veterinary program.
“We both knew in high school we wanted to pursue something with animals, and we were both confident it would be in conservation,” Rolfe says. “We looked throughout Wisconsin and the university at River Falls was the school that had the best program for pre-veterinary medicine. There’s strong animal science coursework there.”
Robin recalls Professor Mark Bergland guiding him toward a larger understanding of conservation. “This is borne out today–you see all the emerging diseases around the world–SARS, Avian influenza and all of them are intricately related to animal health, human health and the environment,” Robin says. “They’re all tied together.” The twins entered private practice after graduating from the University of Minnesota’s veterinary program. And while Rolfe later went to Ithaca for a residency at Cornell as an equine surgeon, Robin went to Texas and worked his way up from intern to chief veterinarian at Fossil Rim, a 3,000-acre preserve near Dallas, Texas.
The brothers tended to rhinos in villages throughout Africa and Asia, discovering that the animals actually kept a low profile among villagers. Because rhinos are reclusive, gentle and far from aggressive, many villagers were actually unaware of rhinos, let alone concerned by their declining population.
That led to one artistic approach to conservation: Robin authored a children’s book about rhinos. To further spread the word, he and his brother created a dance project in one of the villages. Dancing is a huge component of the culture, and animal costumes are common as well. When they discovered that the dancing never involved rhinos, Robin recruited a local artist to design a rhino dance costume that’s now a regular part of the village celebration. “Simple things like that are part of what I do,” Robin said. “It’s really satisfying to see that.”
Rhinos once were one of the most successful mammals on the planet, with some 100 different species walking the continents of Asia, Africa and North America. Today, only five species remain–the black rhino, white rhino, Greater Asian rhino, Sumatran rhino and Java rhino. Of them, the latter two are most endangered.
Most died from poaching, Robin says. Shot, snared or otherwise killed, rhinos of all types were wanted for their horns. Despite having no medicinal value, the horns–made of keratin, the substance of human fingernails–were part of ancient medicine traditions in Asia, and traditions don’t shake easily. Worse for the Sumatran and Java was the belief that their smaller horns were somehow more valuable and potent, Robin adds.
Today, he oversees a sanctuary in southeastern Sumatra that holds 5 Sumatran rhinos in a fenced-in area, while another 20 live in the surrounding rainforest. In all of Southeast Asia, there are only 250 Sumatran rhinos remaining. Those and an additional 11 in captivity in other parts of the world are all that remain.
Robin left Fossil Rim in 2006 to work with the International Rhino Foundation, where he helped create the Rhino Conservation Medicine Program. Its three goals: to provide health care at rhino conservation programs in Asia and Africa, to provide training for American and Indonesian veterinary students interested in rhinos, and to educate locals on the fragile state of rhinos. It’s a program that fits into Robin’s view of conservation as a very broad effort.
“In veterinary school, especially when you work with wildlife, you learn a lot about medicine and surgery and various aspects of taking care of the individual animal…but very little about working with the people,” Robin says. “Veterinary medicine is really all about people, and conservation hinges on relationships and interaction with people and their environment.”
While the brothers were working together to save rhinos, they decided to use the arts as a way to spread the wider word about conservation. In 2000, they created a nonprofit organization, Living Fossil Productions. Its mission is to increase public awareness of critical, endangered environments. Its method is photography–the large-format landscape photography that marked the work of Ansel Adams.
Living Fossil Productions’ largest project to date is a photo exhibit of scenes at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a collection of stunning color shots reflecting the majesty, serenity and stillness of the area–all of which could be threatened if oil drilling is approved in the plains area north of the refuge.
While millions of acres in northern Alaska have been set aside for acquisition of oil, Congress in 1964 deemed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as protected, but the section just north of the refuge was not included. The Bush administration efforts to encourage drilling in the area were blocked by the U.S. Senate. In that sense, the exhibit is a preventative measure–showing what would be disrupted should drilling be allowed, Rolfe says.
“It’s still pristine, and there has not been drilling,” he says. “There’s been some exploration but nothing has been done in the arctic refuge that has done any significant damage.”
Both brothers have high praise for the preparation they received at UW-River Falls as pre-veterinary majors.
“When we first came in,” Rolfe says, “there were 300 or 400 kids set up as pre-veterinary majors. From the three hundred or four hundred people, there were only a dozen of us who ended up going into veterinary medicine. It’s very competitive.”
“It’s taken me a long time to get here, and I’m really happy with what I’m doing,” Robin says. “And River Falls was the start of it
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