Where Are Those Rhinos?

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Alta and Charlees sleeping away in their “rhino hideout.”

One morning, I turned off the truck engine to enjoy the tranquility of the field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and realized it was much more peaceful than usual. Why wasn’t a boisterous group of greater one-horned rhinos raiding the contents of my feed truck? Why couldn’t I hear them noisily chomping on carrots and apples? Why was it so eerily quiet and still out here? Where were the rhinos?

Rhino dynamics had changed quite drastically upon releasing new mom Alta and her now 4-month-old calf, Charlees, to the exhibit and temporarily housing Bhopu, our sire, in the boma yard to give Alta and Charlees some time to navigate the huge exhibit on their own for a few months (see post Rhino Calf Makes Debut). After Mom and calf cruised the entire exhibit checking things out, Alta took her baby down into the ravine, a rocky area that the rhinos seem to know we keepers can’t access, even with our four-wheel-drive trucks. The other four females followed suit. It seemed like they were just taking a break at first, but then a few days went by and we were all stumped: why aren’t they acting like they usually do?

The greater one-horned rhinos are notorious for being giant chowhounds. They are pretty reliable for approaching our trucks looking for a snack and sometimes even treating them like their own personal buffet, grabbing bags of feed, hoisting their large heads up onto the bed to quickly survey the contents for a shiny, red apple. But lately, they wouldn’t even bother to grace us with their presence first thing in the morning when we dish out hundreds of pounds of grain throughout the exhibit.

We realized we better make an effort to get the rhinos used to coming up to our trucks again. Each day, we tried to lure the rhinos over to a flat spot with a giant, leafy piece of their favorite treat: ficus browse. They barely responded. However, thanks to the evidence of the enormous rhino middens (poop piles spread throughout the exhibit; see Collecting Rhino Treasures); we know for a fact that they surfaced every day, just not during our work schedule. Hmm.

This went on for a few weeks, and then we started seeing them up and around the exhibit first thing in the morning. Aha! I approached Alta and Charlees cautiously, because one thing you should know about greater one-horned rhinos is that they are kind of dramatic; one minute you can be feeding them apples from the truck, and then who-knows-what initiates a reaction, and they trot off as if you’ve offended them. I calculated my approach, tossing pieces of food out of the window as a peace offering as I rolled to stop. Alta and I sized each other up. I was thinking, “Is she going to run off?” while she probably wondered, “Is this little truck driver going to mess with my kid?” I decided she was going to stay, so I hopped out of the driver’s seat and quickly scaled the back of truck and armed myself with all kinds of goodies.

I sat there and patiently waited for her to realize that she could trust me. I guess hunger won her over, because she slowly started lumbering toward my truck with kid in tow. I had the chance to interact with Charlees while she was in the boma, and Alta did a great job of being protective but not aggressive. In the safety of the boma, Alta would munch away on her treats while keeping a careful eye on Charlees, who would try to eat my entire hand after I fed her a tiny piece of banana. She already had tiny little teeth! I would reassure Alta by giving her plenty of positive reinforcement and letting her calf approach me on her own, instead of reaching out to Charlees. Now, out in the field, it’s like hitting the restart button. We have to develop a relationship all over again because of this big change in her environment.

As she approached the truck, I dropped an entire tub of food on the ground and also handed her a few apples. She must have been hungry, because she didn’t pay any attention to her child as she busily investigated the front of the truck. So far, so good. While Alta ate, Charlees made her way around to me. I reached my hand down with a tiny piece of apple, and she gobbled it right up! I fed her piece after piece while checking on Alta to make sure she was cool with this. She didn’t seem to mind. Alta finished her tub of treats but didn’t walk off like the rhinos usually do when the food is gone. I gave her some grain and hay to see if that would satisfy her, and it did. Charlees was also interested in this new food item and started playing with it with her somewhat uncoordinated prehensile lip. I sat and watched them eat, enjoying the company of this pair. Charlees is an extraordinary addition to our group of rhinos, and I’m proud that her mom has done such a great job of caring for her.

After this visit to the truck, Alta became more interested in approaching us again and allowing her calf to visit us. Eventually, Asha and Kaya emerged from the rhino hideout and were spotted feeding from Caravan Safari trucks and even lounging in the wallow. Whew, looks like things are getting back to normal…until we let Bhopu out of the boma in about a month!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Cinco de Rhino.

Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the Safari Park’s field exhibit on the Safari Park’s Twitter!