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Importance of Nutrition for Animals: Black Rhino Study

Posted by Mary Ida Young on

Saving Lucy

Though there has been an increase in overall numbers of African rhinos in the world, the Black Rhino, in particular, has been declining quickly. In fact, they have been declining faster than any other large terrestrial mammal that has been documented in recent history.

The Black Rhino is one of five types of the rhinoceros species, and both their numbers as well as their available habitat has been experiencing a considerable downward slope.

Habitat encroachment, as well as poaching, are the culprits currently contributing to the Black Rhino’s rapid deterioration in numbers, and to date, there are no effective management techniques that have been developed to prevent this or slow it down. This is the reason that a lot of effort is being put into maintaining this disappearing species in homes like zoos and other protected environments.

Unfortunately, however, public zoos often have significant cost and availability limitations when it comes to what they can feed their animals to keep them healthy and nourished.

In the case of the Black Rhinoceros, the costs are simply too prohibitive to import their native African diet to North America, and sadly, there are not very many places here in the States that offer a suitable habitat and suitable temperatures to grow native African plants.

Because of these limitations, it means that most Black Rhinos get fed a diet very similar in composition to that which is given to White Rhinos, despite their significant differences both chemically and physically when it comes to what these two beasts eat in the wild.

For instance, the White Rhino likes to graze, and typically consumes more grass instead of shrubs and trees. The Black Rhino, however, mostly consumes trees and shrubs, and rarely eats grass unless by accident while eating shrubbery. A

White Rhinos main diet in captivity is typically alfalfa sprouts and green pellets as well as grass hays. Obviously, when this same diet is fed to the Black Rhinoceros, it does not do a great job of mimicking their natural diet in the wild at all.

As a result, many of the Black Rhinos in captivity appear to be developing a whole host of health concerns and diseases that are not being seen in other rhinoceros species like the White Rhino. This is thought to possibly be related to the different nutrient requirements of the Black Rhinoceros and the nutritional differences in the native diet of trees and shrubs versus the diet they are fed while in captivity, which is largely a blend of hay and grain pellets.

In particular, differences in essential fatty acid composition is thought to be a big culprit to the health concerns and diseases that are being seen, as the fatty acids that Black Rhinos consume in captivity are a poor match for what they would normally consume in the wild, both in levels as well as ratios.

In the case of the Black Rhinoceros, a study was done giving them a fatty acid supplement from The Missing Link® on a regular basis. This supplementation resulted in marked improvements in their health and well-being.

The Black Rhinos were fed The Missing Link, giving them important and effective ratios of both linoleic acid, which is an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha linolenic acid, which is an omega-3 fatty acid.

It is thought that for rhinos, as well as other animal species who may be given fatty acid supplements, it is much more important to determine the proper ratios of fatty acids to give them than it is to determine the overall levels of fatty acids they should consume. Quantity doesn’t matter as much as a proper balance does.

One Eastern Black Rhino, in particular, seemed to benefit amazingly well from The Missing Link supplement: a younger, female Black Rhino named Lucy. She first came to the United States from a South African elephant park.

When she arrived in the States, she was three years old and had a healthy balance of linoleic and alpha-linoleic acids as her baseline. Within a year of arrival, she suffered a series of concerning blood health problems thought to be related to diet and the ratios of EFA’s she was consuming.

During the study, Lucy was flown in food from Zimbabwe, and because of the diet changes, researchers noticed a significant improvement in her health. This led them to begin to look for other ways they could meet Black Rhinos nutritional requirements, without importing weekly food from Africa.

They did some blood testing to measure Lucy's fatty acid profiles as well as the profiles of four other Black Rhinos, in order to establish some baseline levels. Before supplementation, Lucy and her friends were also fed a diet of ground aspen feed pellets and alfalfa hay, as well as some oranges in small amounts. They were also fed various plants like honeysuckle, willow, and mulberry, plus given a small salt block to lick. The selected rhinos were then given The Missing Link nutritional supplements that are composed of (at minimum) 18% linoleic acid, and 50% linolenic acid.

As the researchers monitored these Black Rhinos over the course of four months, they noticed that not only did the animal’s fatty acid ratios improve, they also noted that the Black Rhino exhibited no ill side effects from the supplementation.

Lucy, the Black Rhino that was so ill at one point, was given only The Missing Link supplement, and her aspen feed pellets. The supplement played a big part in her health improvements and she showed no signs of the issues and diseases she had previously suffered from.

Meanwhile, as Lucy was being treated and monitored, another female Black Rhino, also three years old, arrived in the United States and showed the same ratios of essential fatty acids as Lucy had when it was thought they could be potentially harming her health.

Based on the results of the study, the conclusion was reached that supplementing with The Missing Link essential fatty acid supplement helped to maintain in the Black Rhinos a healthy and balanced ratio of linoleic acid and linolenic acid that is so important for their well-being. Lucy continued to receive the supplement after the study, and even one year after the study was complete, she was still presenting as healthy and appeared to be doing well.

This study does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of essential fatty acids (which in this case were derived from flax) in an animal’s diet, both large and small. Also, more critically, the importance of maintaining a healthy ratio of fatty acids, not just adequate levels of fatty acids. Since the study, other wild animals held in captivity have been given The Missing Link fatty acid supplements to improve their health and diet, with great success.

This is a partial list of the many different species currently consuming and benefiting from The Missing Link’s fatty acid supplement:

  • Golden Lion Tamarin
  • White-Nosed Coati
  • Coquerel’s Sifaka
  • East African Grey-Crowned Crane
  • Mountain/Woolly Tapir
  • Harris’ Antelope Squirrel
  • Four-Toed Hedgehog
  • Black Lemur
  • Greater Malayan Chevrotain
  • Donkey
  • Jaguar
  • Lion
  • Cat
  • North American Black Bear
  • Dog
  • Giant Eland
  • Mandrill
  • Gelada Baboon
  • Pied Tamarin
  • Red-Tailed Mustached Monkey
  • Prevost’s Squirrel
  • Red Uakari
  • De Brazza’s Monkey
  • One-Horned Rhinoceros
  • Toggenburg Goat
  • Emperor Tamarin
  • Sierra Nevada Black Bear
  • Buff-Cheeked Gibbon
  • Anoa
  • Chimpanzee
  • Black-Handed Spider Monkey
  • Red-Capped Mangabey
  • Orangutan
  • Masai Giraffe
  • Turkmenistan Markhor
  • Horse
  • Japanese Serow
  • North Sulawesi Babirusa
  • Bactrian Camel

The Importance of Essential Fatty Acids

So, just why are these essential fatty acids so important and fundamental in the diet of these animals? Good question. There are actually two types of essential fatty acids, sometimes called EFA’s for short, called omega-3 and omega-6. These EFAs are important because the cell membranes that make up an animal’s skin, fur, and nails are composed of them.

Because of this, EFA's play a vital role in maintaining the health of an animal's skin and coat. EFA's are also used by animals to produce eicosanoids, which is a hormone-like substance that contributes to many necessary and important biological functions in an animal's body.

These functions can impact body temperature, open and close bronchial passages, stimulate the production of hormones and even give nerve fibers their sensitivity. EFA's do the same thing in humans as well.

If that’s not enough to convince you of the importance of EFA’s in an animal’s diet, recent research is also showing that not only are they necessary for health, but animals must have an essential balance of these omegas in order for their bodies to function optimally. In other words, they don’t just need the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids at any level, they need them in a particular ratio to each other, properly balanced so that they can work together synergistically to keep an animal’s health in top shape.

Unfortunately, because diet does play such a large role in how EFA's are obtained, it is easy for animals to suffer deficiencies. Sometimes, diseases and health conditions can create deficiencies, while other times, the deficiency could be contributed to a lack of proper nutrition for that species.

For instance, EFA’s are found in abundance in the leafy plants that roaming animals typically consume in the wild, which is why the Black Rhino that was fed her native diet improved so much. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it’s much more difficult to get those fatty acids in a domesticated or captive animal’s daily diet without costly importing expenses, or supplementing.

Signs of an EFA Deficiency

When an animal is suffering from an EFA deficiency, they may commonly experience a myriad of skin and coat problems. You could notice symptoms like greasy, dry, or dull hair and coat, and dry, flaky skin, similar to dandruff.

You may also notice sores, scabbing, and itching, plus notice a slow rate of healing when lesions develop. Balding and loss of hair sometimes occurs, and ear inflammation is a common symptom as well. Sometimes even weight loss and a reduction in growth may occur.

Common conditions that are a result of a deficiency of EFAs are recurrent seasonal pruritus, dermatitis, and eczema. Self-mutilation is often the result of skin problems, especially when combined with compulsive behaviors like itching, constant licking, and scratching.

As you can see, there are many benefits to be found from supplementing with omega fatty acids, including those EFAs derived from plant sources like flax. EFAs are used to help successfully treat and prevent many unhealthy skin conditions, and they may also help to reduce the joint inflammation that can cause stiffness, swelling, and pain.

The Missing Link is a leader in discovering and utilizing the benefits of EFAs in keeping animals both wild and domestic, healthy, happy, and disease-free.

*This article is for informational purposes only. Please see a vet if your pet shows any symptoms.


Kirk Suedmeyer, Wm & Dierenfeld, Ellen. (1998). Clinical experience with fatty acid supplementation in a group of black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). Proceedings of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.

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