black rhinos


Rhinos in Australia

Laura bonds with a young female black rhino.

Be sure to read Laura’s previous post, Australian Keeper Exchange.

As a zoo keeper we are supposed to care for all of our animals with the same expertise and energy. But we all have favorites, and mine have always been rhinoceroses! Back in San Diego I work with Soman and Surat, our greater one-horned rhino brothers (see The Dirt on Rhinos). The Taronga Zoo, where I’m doing my keeper exchange, does not have any rhinos, but I didn’t let that stop me. Last week two of my co-workers and I took the five-hour drive to the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo. It is basically like Taronga’s version of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. You can rent buggies and drive through the pathways and hop out to see each of the huge exhibits. Most of the exhibits are single species, so it is quite different than the Safari Park’s mixed-species field exhibits. Either way, the animals have a huge amount of room to roam.

A young female greater one-horned rhino gets a "taste" of Laura!

The Taronga Western Plains Zoo has white, greater one-horned, and my favorite, black rhinos. When I started my zoo career, I worked with three black rhinos, and they have always held a huge place in my heart. I was able to visit with the rhinos and keepers at each exhibit and see how they manage their animals in such large enclosures. They have 10 black rhinos, 2 greater one-horned, and 8 whites. It was truly heaven for me! We discussed training, introducing males and females, weights, blood draws, reproductive testing, the whole lot. Visiting other zoos is such a great way to get new ideas and bring them back home. The sharing of information is so important to our job.

A Tasmanian devil at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo

They have a major Tasmanian devil breeding facility out there, too, and it was wonderful to get a glimpse of these well-known animals. Devils are very energetic and make such wonderful vocalizations. I also learned about housing them and their specific needs. Being so close to the ground, they really like to have a lookout point. Each of their individual dens had a small mountain of sticks, rocks, and dirt so they would be able to see what was going on from a small vantage point.

We stayed in the zoo house on grounds, which had wonderful old signs and pictures from zoo days gone past. I always enjoy seeing those pictures, because it will be some keeper from 1930 standing right next to a full grown hippo and just smiling at the camera!

It was such a wonderful trip, and we even saw wild kangaroos in the zebra exhibit. I am halfway through with my keeper exchange and cannot believe how fast time is flying. More adventures to come!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper from the San Diego Zoo on a keeper exchange at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia.


Rhino Poaching Increases at Alarming Rate

Eastern black rhino mom and calf

Below are wild rhinoceros population statistics compiled by the Traffic Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network. The numbers are so appalling that we thought we’d share them with you to raise awareness and garner support for the dire plight of rhinos. We hope you’re as shocked and alarmed as we are and even more dedicated to fighting for the survival of this important species.

  • Combined black rhino populations = 4,838 animals – IUCN listed as Critically Endangered
  • Southern white rhino populations = less than 20,000 animals – IUCN listed as Near Threatened
  • Combined Nepalese and greater one-horned rhino populations = 2,913 – IUCN listed as Critically Endangered
  • Javan rhino populations = less than 50 animals – IUCN listed as Critically Endangered
  • Sumatran rhino populations = less than 200 animals – IUCN listed as Critically Endangered

Rhino poaching stats from South Africa

  • 2009 = 122 animals
  • 2010 = 33 animals
  • 2011 = 448 animals, including 19 black rhinos
  • Poachers arrested in 2010 = 165
  • Poachers arrested in 2011 = 232

Source: http://www.traffic.org/

Help us spread the word that poaching needs to stop. Re-tweet this tweet:

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Rhinos: Never Give Up, Never Surrender.


Rhinos: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

The Safari Park's most recent eastern black rhino calf, Eric. There are only about 700 eastern black rhinos left in the wild.

In response to a recent article published by msnbc.com declaring the extinction of the western black rhino, Safari Park Curator of Mammals Randy Rieches had this to say:

“This is such incredibly horrible news. Within the last couple months we have seen the last Javan rhino in Vietnam poached, the western black rhino declared extinct, and numerous rhinos of all taxa in Africa and Asia poached for their horns, which are now being sold on the black market for up to $100,000 a kilo.

We thought that last year was such a horrendous year for rhinos being poached in Africa and Asia that it couldn’t get any worse. Unfortunately, we now see that the numbers continue to escalate higher in 2011.

There is no end in site to the carnage wreaked upon this magnificent family. As a conservationist, the term ‘never give up, never surrender’ has never carried more meaning.”

I second Randy’s sentiments, and if you’re reading this blog post you probably do, too. We can’t let human greed win this time. Help us spread the word about the dire plight of rhinos. Like, tweet, share, and re-share this blog post with your friends. Only through increased awareness can we inspire compassion and drive action to save rhinos. Unless we want to lose this incredible animal forever, we have to follow Randy’s advice: “never give up, never surrender.”

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Get Invited to Festival of Flight Tweet-up.


Black Rhinos: Lots of Attitude

Our black rhino mother, Lembi

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is home to three of five rhinoceros species. All are huge and endangered, but one has a reputation for a whole lot of attitude! The eastern black rhino Diceros bicornis michaeli is the Park’s smallest rhino species, but they are also the most aggressive. This is evident when you see the black rhino enclosure separate from the mixed-species field exhibits we are known for. These rhinos can have quite the temper and are extremely territorial, so for the safety of the rest of our animals (and keepers!), the black rhinos have a home all to themselves. The Park is currently home to four black rhinos: Jambia, Lembi, Belozi, and Erik.

Jambia is our adult male weighing 2,363 pounds (1,055 kilograms), and his name means “dagger” in Arabic. He was born here on February 25, 1997, and was hand raised in our Animal Care Center by some very loving rhino “moms.”  Yet that attention did not soften his preprogrammed demeanor as an adult. To feed and clean his enclosure, keepers must first move him to another section of the compound; the last time we drove a truck into his home, we were quickly cautioned to not attempt this invasion again! If you look closely at the keeper trucks the next time you see them drive past, you might notice a truck with two ugly holes in the passenger side, a lasting reminder of this well-learned lesson.

Lembi is our female black rhino. Born at the San Francisco Zoo on July 16, 1998, she moved here in July 2000. She is a great mother and has given birth to four calves, all fathered by Jambia. At 2,557 pounds (1,160 kilograms), Lembi is, thankfully, tolerant of trucks in the enclosure as long as we don’t dillydally in getting the food out to her! She is also involved in a new training program and is responding very well to the experience, learning to touch her nose to a target and to open her mouth on command; we soon hope to begin work on blood draws and ultrasounds. All of these behaviors will lessen the need for anesthetic during many health assessments.  We work with her in what we call a protected-contact environment, meaning there is always a safety barrier between the keeper and the rhino.

Lembi is being closely followed at all times by her year-old calf, Erik. He was born on July 19, 2010 (see post, Black Rhino Calf!).  Even though he already weighs approximately 900 pounds (410 kilograms), he is the biggest baby you have ever met: he never strays more than about four feet from his mother and utters a high-pitched cry if she ventures off without him noticing. We are working very closely with Erik to have him become comfortable taking food from our hands and to condition him to a training chute. At the moment he is doing great, so long as his mother is close by (usually in a training session herself), but if we separate them he still gets pretty agitated. We are moving slowly toward the goal of working with each of them independently, since Lembi often sees that her son has dropped a few biscuits, and what kind of a mother would she be if she didn’t just clean those up for him? As you can imagine, this is very disruptive to both training sessions!

Belozi, whose name means “ambassador,” is Erik’s big brother; unfortunately, there will be no brotherly loved shared here. In a rhino’s world you have your mother’s undivided attention and love until she has a new baby. Unlike most families I know where a new baby means all kinds of toys and special bonding time for the older child, in rhino society this arrival means that you get to practice all of the skills your mother taught you because now you are on your own! In the wild, an older calf might try to follow Mom for a while longer, but usually they are chased off if they get too close. There seems to be an unspoken “one calf at a time” rule for rhino mothers. Knowing that Lembi would not be happy with Belozi’s continued presence after Erik was born, they were separated about two months before Lembi gave birth. Belozi is living the solitary life normal for a rhino in an off-exhibit area of the Park until he moves to another zoo to start a family of his own.

Although Jambia and Lembi have been very successful parents, they are getting a break at the moment. Black rhinos are part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP), and breeding is based on international recommendations that take into account housing availability and genetics. With four sons to pass on their genes, the SSP feels that this pair is well represented, so Lembi and Jambia are being housed in different areas of the black rhino compound. Make sure to take a moment to look into the exhibit from the Africa Tram Safari the next time you are visiting the Park and see who is out that day!

Kym Janke is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, All about Antlers.


Making Friends with a Rhino

A black rhino

Kym has been a carnivore keeper for eight years. She recently switched to caring for herbivores and is writing a series about her new experiences. Read her previous post, Meet a Mammal Keeper.

I never realized how much personality the black rhinos have. When I thought of animals that would have favorite keepers, be resistant to change, and challenge a new face, I thought of gorillas and lions, not rhinoceroses. But after a month on the West Run at the Wild Animal Park working with Jambia, our male black rhino, I can assure you that rhinos are now at the top of that list!

The first couple of times that I worked in the black rhino area, I was told by the other keepers to just stand back a little bit and watch. It was explained to me that Jambia sometimes took a while to warm up to new keepers. “Not me,” I thought. “Animals love me!” But I stood back, nonetheless, and Jambia didn’t pay me any attention, just what I was expecting.

Jambia has to be moved out of the exhibit every day into an adjacent yard so that the keepers can enter the exhibit to clean it. He has been known to challenge our trucks; if you don’t believe me, keep your eyes peeled for our keeper truck driving around the Wild Animal Park; you’ll know it’s the right truck when you see two holes in the passenger side from his horns!

Finally, I was handed an apple, and once Jambia was secured in the adjacent yard I approached with my peace offering, and he took the apple with no hesitation. It was like I had been doing this for years! Feeling confident, I reached out my hand to pet him. I had never touched a rhino before; his skin is very rough and thick. Just as I was thinking that things were going perfectly, something changed: Jambia backed away from the gate and let out a large huff (rhinos blow out air as a sign of aggression). Next, he came forward very quickly, charging the bars and me on the other side. That was enough to let me know that, despite my best efforts, we were not going to become instant friends. Still, I thought as I walked away from him, that it was not too terrible for a first meeting; a few more apples and we would be buds.

The next day I returned, apples in hand, ready to be greeted and make fast friends. Well, Jambia apparently had something else in mind. As I approached the door and held out a tasty treat, he charged the bars without the least bit of interest in the apple. He proceeded to kick his hind feet in the dirt, knocked his food tub over, and then pooped everywhere! This was NOT the greeting I had envisioned. It got worse from there, not better. As big as Jambia is (1,070 kilograms or 2,359 pounds!), he needed to be sure that I always remembered who was going to be the boss in our relationship. The next week was full of displays, feet kicking, horn rubbing, and sometimes charging right up the walls of the exhibit! These behaviors are similar to ones seen exhibited in displays between Jambia and his mate, Lembi; at least I am not the only female dealing with this temperamental male!

I have learned now that patience is the only way to make a rhino feel comfortable. Each day I returned with apples, and slowly, I was allowed to stay for increasing periods of time. In a way it was quite comical: I would feed him treats, talk to him, and brush him for a few minutes, and then it was as if he suddenly remembered he didn’t like me, a switch went on in his mind, and the posturing began. Today, things are going well; more often than not he is accepting of me and doesn’t pay me much attention. I expect that in a couple of weeks I will finally be one of “his” people. Now that’s a title to be proud of!

Kym Nelson is a senior keeper at the Wild Animal Park.