Mason Scientists Make Meaningful Contributions to Rescuing Rhinos

by Anne Reynolds

Mason Scientists Make Meaningful Contributions to Rescuing Rhinos
Elizabeth Freeman, associate integrative studies professor and co-PI, AIRS project

Just a few days ahead of World Rhino Day, a diverse group of rhino expert scientists has come together to create the American Institute of Rhinoceros Science (AIRS). Made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the group comprises a number of leading organizations in the fight to save the five species of rhinos, including the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation, the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, The Wilds, Disney’s Animal Kingdomâ, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and George Mason University. The team’s co-principal investigators include Elizabeth Freeman, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’05, associate professor in the School of Integrative Studies.

Freeman is proud to play a role in the AIRS project. “Mason is excited to contribute to a project aimed at producing practical, science-based recommendations to ensure rhinos continue to not only survive, but also thrive in our care,” she said. Moreover, “AIRS will provide Mason undergraduate and graduate students amazing opportunities to study rhinos.”

Four other Mason alumni are part of the AIRS team: co-PI Parker Pennington, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’16, works with the Cincinnati Zoo/CREW. Team member Stacie Bickley, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’16, is an adjunct biology faculty member in Mason’s College of Science, and team member Jessye Wojtusik, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’15, is with the Cincinnati Zoo/CREW. Kari Morfeld, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’13, is the founder of For Elephants, Inc., a nonprofit elephant research organization, and is a consultant on the AIRS project.

These team members, noted Freeman, are all women. “By demonstrating the importance of integrative research and the strength of women in STEM, AIRS is a model for training the next generation of conservation scientists.”

The three-year AIRS project has four priorities: 1) to study rhinos’ physical fitness and its relation to their health, 2) to study iron storage in browsing rhinos, 3) to ensure their reproductive success, and 4) to understand behavioral and environmental factors that can maximize rhino well-being. Each of these research priorities are interrelated and AIRS recognizes the need to tackle the questions together rather than in isolation.

“There are no simple solutions to saving endangered species, like rhinoceros, from extinction,” said Freeman. “The holistic and collaborative approach of our team positions AIRS to be able to make significant contributions to the long-term survival of these majestic creatures.”