It’s just before 8 a.m., and I still have to find a newborn Indian blackbuck antelope before I head off to help the team with a medical procedure. On my way out of the exhibit, my feed truck, clanking through the uneven terrain, has caught the attention of Bhopu, a 10-year-old greater one-horned Asian rhino. Lifting his giant head, he cautiously peeks above the mud-splattered quarter panel, and I stop so he can inspect. I can’t linger too long, or he will grab a bag of feed with his prehensile upper lip. He peruses the contents of my truck; it has the usual buffet of hay, grain, and produce. Bhopu likes attention, but right now I have to get going, or he will help himself to a snack. And I still have a blackbuck to find.
Bhopu doesn’t know this, but he’s kind of a big deal. He is originally from the Patna Zoo in India, and his genes are really important to help diversify the breeding population in the U.S. There are only about 2,850 greater one-horned rhinos left in their native habitat of India and Nepal, so it’s important that we do everything we can to save these animals. With a deep exhale, his nose smudges more dirt against the side of my truck, and he lumbers away toward the Caravan Safari truck in hopes of scoring a treat from the guests.
As I pass a herd of Indian gaur grazing under the early sun, I spot a pile of rhinos blissfully sleeping away the morning. It’s clear that they have been in the mud wallow moisturizing their skin, a technique that people have recently perfected by going to the spa, but rhinos have been doing this for thousands of years. This clump of rhinos basking away contains Bhopu’s leading ladies: it’s all part of the Species Survival Plan; think of it as a master dating plan for endangered zoo animals. Hopefully, he is compatible with all five of these females; their genetic lineage is just as diverse as their distinct and individual personalities. Bhopu has been here for a few years, and so far he has sired one calf, Bandhu, who just celebrated his second birthday in May.
Like a typical adult male rhino, Bhopu spends most of his time alone. He interacts with the females when he gets a signal from them, a chemical signal, that is. When one of the females is interested in Bhopu, she will vocalize, squirt urine, and seek out her mate. It’s a complicated, yet important part of greater one-horned rhino breeding.
I drive back into the exhibit after lunch, and it is now pretty warm outside. I suspect the rhinos will be lounging in the wallow, unwilling to come over to the truck, even for their favorite treat: ficus branches that they devour using their prehensile upper lip and sharp incisors. In their natural habitat, they would be foraging on similar plants, and we try to re-create this as often as possible.
I am fortunate enough to awaken the rhinos from their slumber and work with them from the back of the truck. I feed them apples, yams, and carrots by hand, carefully tossing pieces of fruit into their open mouths. We spend this quality time with them to prepare them for interacting with the caravans of guests traveling through the exhibit, hoping to get an up-close-and-personal visit with these amazing creatures. Additionally, being able to hand feed them and have them safely approach the truck is a great foundation for training and husbandry care.
I take a break from observing the rhinos, looking for any behavioral or medical concerns, and return to the rest of my daily routine. I found the newborn blackbuck, tucked away beside a small rock. His dam gave me a clue to his location by gazing in his direction from afar, as most attentive moms do. He looked great and will be alongside the herd in just a few more days. Toward the end of the day, all the animals have been accounted for, medical cases were tended to, and the herds were observed to identify any concerns. I leave the exhibit, pausing to admire Bhopu’s impressive size one more time, feeling lucky to work with such an important collection of animals and looking forward to doing this all over again tomorrow.
Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.