Big Plans for Big Rhinos

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RhinoZoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest Journals. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.


The field enclosures at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park feature some of the best conditions for breeding animals. The exhibits boast large open spaces, watering holes, and tree-shaded areas that create a very naturalistic environment for some of the world’s most interesting herbivores. This environment gives way to very successful breeding programs at the Park; so successful that the Park has is bursting at the fences in some of its most prolific species. The Park was originally built for breeding purposes so large exhibits were designed to give animal residents plenty of room. One of the first animals to be housed in the enclosures was the rhinoceros.

Currently, the Park has three species of rhinos housed in their series of field enclosures and boasts the largest collection of Indian rhinoceros in North America. The Park is very successful at breeding Indian rhinoceros; 58 rhino calves have been born there to date! It’s a good thing too because all five rhino species are considered endangered. The Park’s Indian rhinos are all part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP), a plan to manage the breeding of captive populations and sometimes their reintroduction to the wild. Simply put, an SSP manager decides who breeds with whom, manages the captive gene pool, creates plans for newborn animals, and occasionally plans the transportation of animals to nature reserves. The Park actually sent two rhinos to a nature reserve in India a few years ago as part of the SSP for Indian rhinos. In these reserves, India employs armed rangers to help protect populations of rhinos from poachers.

These sorts of efforts are very rare because SSPs are mostly to ensure the survival of animals in captive populations, not necessarily to reintroduce them. In order to do this, zoos must cooperate with each other through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and it takes a lot of money and effort to ensure the survival of even a single species. All of this money and effort can make achieving additional goals like reintroduction difficult. Reintroduction can also be limited by other factors. For example, many animals need their own territory and there is not much natural habitat for them left. Also the people in the animal’s region must be willing to protect reintroduced animals. An SSP also provides that, if wild populations went extinct, zoos will still have healthy diverse populations in captivity.

The history of SSPs is marked by numerous success stories. The Arabian oryx is an animal that was once nearly completely wiped out, but healthy populations were later restored because of a dedicated SSP. Numerous animals at both the Park and Zoo are part of an SSP. Even the other black and white rhino species are part of an SSP.

Curtis, Conservation Team