greater one-horned rhino


Rhino Wet Willy: Rhino Calf Introduced to Ankole Calf at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

RHINO WET WILLY: RHINO CALF INTRODUCED TO ANKOLE CALF AT SAN DIEGO ZOO SAFARI PARK A 6-week-old greater one-horned rhino calf appears to stick his tongue in the ear of his new playmate, an 8-month-old Ankole calf, at the Ione and Paul Harter Animal CareA 6-week-old greater one-horned rhino calf appears to stick his tongue in the ear of his new playmate, an 8-month-old Ankole calf, at the Ione and Paul Harter Animal Care Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park earlier today. The pair, introduced three days ago, is still getting to know each other but animal care staff at the Safari Park hope they will become longtime companions.

The male rhino calf, named Chutti, was born on Nov. 27, to a first-time mother in the Safari Park’s Asian Plains exhibit. The mother nursed and cared for her newborn for almost two weeks, but keepers realized he wasn’t gaining weight as he should. To provide the calf with the optimal care to thrive, he was brought to the Safari Park’s animal care center where he is being hand-raised.

 Since the rhino is being raised in a nursery setting, it is important for him to get daily exercise and have companionship. The female Ankole calf, affectionately named Moo Moo Kitty by keepers, was born on May 23 and also was born to a first-time mother that couldn’t properly care for her calf. Keepers hand-raised and recently weaned the Ankole, and they felt she would make the perfect companion for the little rhino since both are social animals. If Chutti and Moo Moo Kitty bond, they could be companions until the little rhino is weaned in 14 to 15 months.
 Visitors to the Safari Park may see these unlikely playmates at the animal care center nursery corral between 1 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. daily, weather permitting, and possibly other times throughout the day.

Photo taken on Jan. 9, by Dustin Trayer, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.




14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014

This year, the Safari Park baby boom provided over 650 tiny new additions to our animal family, some of which were released into the wild. From cute chicks to courageous calves and cubs, here are some of the noteworthy births we saw in 2014:

1. Leroy, the resilient giraffe calf.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Leroy

The birth of our first Uganda giraffe calf on January 8 was a marvelous way to kick off the New Year. However, shortly after Shani’s calf arrived, keepers noticed the youngster was exhibiting signs of weakness and not eating well. At two weeks old, Leroy was sent to the Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center, where he spent 39 days in treatment for a severe bacterial infection. Nursing was impossible, so his human keepers filled in as surrogate parents, bottle-feeding the young calf three to five times a day. After extensive care, Leroy made a full recovery and was welcomed back into his herd with kisses and nose rubs in April.

2. Tanu’s spirited stripes.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Tanu

The endangered Grevy’s zebra population saw a tiny black-and-white boost when Bakavu gave birth to her fifth foal, Tanu, on January 3. Tanu was able to tell his mother apart from other zebras in the herd and knew to stay close to her by memorizing Bakavu’s unique stripe pattern.

3. Parvesh, the lord of celebration.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Parvesh

Parvesh, which means lord of celebration in Hindi, was born on February 25 to mother Alta and father Bophu. When he was nine weeks old, the greater one-horned rhino calf moved into the Asian Plains habitat and started making his own rules. Parvesh’s charming personality demands the attention of our guests.

4. One little gorilla named Joanne.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Joanne

When Imani had her first baby on March 12, the 18-year-old mother had to be sedated and whisked to the Harter Veterinary Medical Center for an emergency C-section. The fragile infant, named Joanne, stayed at the veterinary hospital for round-the-clock care. Due to the long labor, Joanne was having trouble breathing, and it turned out that she had a collapsed lung and pneumonia. Twelve days later, the baby was laid down in a nest of soft hay in the gorilla bedroom, and Imani was let in. The moment Joanne was reunited with her mother will forever live in our hearts. This gorilla’s story was (and still is) incredible.

5. Cheetah and puppy best friends.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Ruuxa and Raina

Ruuxa and Raina became an overnight sensation. The six-week-old cheetah cub and seven-week-old Rhodesian ridgeback were the youngest animal ambassador pairing since the program began. Shortly after their introduction, Ruuxa underwent surgery to repair a growth abnormality in his limbs. Raina, whose name means guardian, stayed by the cheetah cub’s side throughout the procedure and continues to be an attentive and loyal friend.

6. Jackson, the curious okapi calf.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Jackson

Gestation for okapis can last from 14 to 16 months, so the birth of Jackson in July was a highly anticipated event. The curious calf stayed close to his mother but kicked his way into our hearts as well.

7. A rare crane chick.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Wattled crane chick

Our very first wattled crane chick shuffled its way into our hearts this summer. Wattled cranes are the rarest crane species found in Africa, so this chick was (and still is) a treasure.

8. Our first Masai giraffe calves.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Gowon

We have a total of 134 Ugandan giraffes and 23 reticulated giraffes, but the births of Gowon and Kamau in July marked the first time Masai giraffes have been born at the Safari Park. While Masai giraffes are the most populous of the subspecies, all wild populations have decreased significantly since the late 1990s, due to habitat loss and competition with livestock for resources. Both are aptly named in the Masai language: Gowon (pronounced Go-wan) means maker of rain and Kamau (pronounced Kam-mao) means little warrior.

9. Four reasons to roar at Lion Camp.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: 4 African lion cubs

Four little rascals debuted at Lion Camp this fall and almost doubled the size of our pride. Cubs Ernest, Evelyn, Marion, and Miss Ellen were born on June 22 but spent several months bonding with their mother, Oshana, behind the scenes. The cubs now spend their days pouncing, climbing, and testing the patience of their big cat parents.

10. Our spotted cheetah sisters.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Cheetah sisters

Ayanna and Bahati received around-the-clock care at our Animal Care Center for the past few months. The cubs were born at the Safari Park’s Cheetah Breeding Center to Allie, but animal care staff decided to hand-rear the females because their mother has been unsuccessful with previous litters. Now, the female cubs have advanced in their training and have moved to different areas of the Park, awaiting their puppy companions.

11. Luke, a leucistic waterbuck calf.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Luke

Luke has been turning heads since his arrival in September. For decades, we’ve successfully bred over 20,000 rare and endangered animals, including 278 ellipsen waterbuck, but Luke is the first-ever animal born at the Park with a condition that causes him to have reduced pigmentation. He’s a stand-out guy and receives a lot of attention from guests taking a ride on the Africa Tram.

12. Petunia, the petite rhino.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Petunia

Our 67th greater one-horned rhino, named Petunia, debuted in the Asian Plains exhibit after one month of close care. The calf weighed only 128 pounds (58 kilograms) at birth, which is small for her species, so animal care staff kept a 24-hour watch on the newborn until she was ready to leave her protected yard in September. Petunia and her mother, Tanaya, have been blooming and exploring their 40-acre (16 hectares) home since.

13. Satellite elephant calf Nandi.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: Nandi

Did you hear? Our satellite herd at the Reid Park Zoo in Tuscon, Arizona, got an adorable little boost with big ears this year. The African elephant calf named Nandi is doing well and enjoying time with her herd at the Click Family Elephant Care Center.

14. Four purr-fect cheetah cubs.

14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014: 4 cheetah cubs

photo: Ershun Lee

Four adorable cheetah cubs were born to first-time mother Addison in July at our off-site breeding center. Wgasa, Reu, Pumzika, Mahala, and their mother moved into the Okvango Outpost (and our hearts) last month. It’s certainly wonderful to see so many spots and to watch a cheetah mother raising her cubs.


Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 10 Festive Reindeer Facts.


Personable Petunia

greater 1-horned rhinos Petunia and TanayaPetunia, the newest greater one-horned rhino calf at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, was born to Tanaya on August 1, 2014. The keepers heaved a collective sigh of relief when she and Tanaya were released from the maternity corral into the 40-acre Asian Plains exhibit with the other greater one-horned rhinos. When Petunia was born, she was diminutive by rhino standards, weighing only 128 pounds (58 kilograms) instead of the usual 132 to 176 pounds (60 to 80 kilograms). Additionally, Tanaya was having trouble producing milk for Petunia, so the keepers treated her with a drug to increase milk production. As a result, the concerned keepers kept 24-hour surveillance on Tanaya and Petunia in the maternity corral for the first few weeks of Petunia’s life.

Petunia is now a spunky, vibrant part of our greater one-horned rhino crash. She and Tanaya were released into the Asian Plains exhibit with the rest of the rhinos when Petunia was four weeks old. Tanaya took Petunia on a tour of her new home and has been the model protective rhino mom, never straying from Petunia’s side. But Tanaya’s strides are so large that Petunia trots to keep up with her. To escape the heat, Petunia has been exploring the mud wallows throughout the exhibit. She is still so tiny that she sometimes sits on top of Tanaya’s feet to keep her head above water!

As Petunia gets more comfortable in her new habitat, she gets braver. I have even seen Petunia surreptitiously investigate Parvesh, the seven- month-old greater one-horned rhino calf (see post Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules). When Tanaya catches her straying toward the toddler, she quickly ushers Petunia away. Petunia is a bit too small to play with Parvesh right now, but as she continues to gain weight, she will be big enough to romp around the exhibit with her half brother. She may even catch up to him in size, as rhino calves gain about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) per month during their first year of life. Watch out, Parvesh! Petunia might be the new boss in the exhibit.

Petunia is the 67th greater one-horned rhino calf born at the Safari Park, making the Park the principal breeding center in the world for this species. The Safari Park officially celebrated World Rhino Day on September 22, but guests who love Petunia and the other rhinos as much as I do celebrate World Rhino Day every day!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules

Parvesh trots proudly beside his mother, Alta.

Parvesh trots proudly beside his mother, Alta.

Leroy the giraffe calf isn’t the only baby commanding lots of guest attention at the Safari Park these days (see post From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe). Parvesh, a greater one-horned rhino calf, was born to Alta on February 25, 2014. Like Leroy, he was born in a maternity corral. He gained the expected 100 pounds (45 kilograms) per month and was released into the Asian Plains habitat with Alta when he was a month old. Now he weighs about 600 pounds (270 kilograms)!

Parvesh still nurses and will continue to do so for another year and a half, but he also experiments with solid foods. As Alta browses through grass, hay, pellets, and fruit, Parvesh stands alongside to nibble her food. Caravan Safari participants sometimes feed the rhinos apples. An adult rhino eats about 100 pounds of food per day. Each caravan truck carries only ten apples, so this snack is like a box of raisins to an adult rhino. Tour participants can’t hand-feed Parvesh yet. He is too short to reach over the truck slats, which are 7 feet (2.1 meters) off the ground, and his digestive system isn’t developed enough to process the sugar in 10 apples. If we feed him too much sugar, it will ferment in his stomach and make him sick. So it will be a few more weeks before we can hand-feed baby Parvesh.

In the meantime, he makes his own rules. He stands underneath Alta with his mouth open and catches the apples she drops!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Helping Rhino Mili: Part 3

Mili stretches her little legs.

Mili checks out the world outside of the protective boma.

Be sure to read Helping Rhino Mili: Part 2.

The time has flown by, and by mid-January, Mili is already one month old. She is about 230 pounds at this point, steadily gaining on average 3 pounds every day, just like a greater one-horned rhino calf should. We continued our dance of feeding her bottles in the morning and giving her back to Mom for more nursing. We watched her become bigger and stronger, and even felt the difference as she tried to play with us, not realizing that we weigh much less than she does at this point. She became interested in investigating not only the things that caught her attention, but everything she could reach with her tiny, prehensile lip! She cruised around the calf area searching for things to manipulate. She reached for my lunch bag one day, and that’s when it really sunk in that she is growing at an incredible rate.

I began feeding her tiny pieces of banana as a treat, to slowly acclimate her to more solid food. She gobbled it right up and followed me around with an open mouth, begging for more. I caved and gave her a few more pieces for free, but after that, banana would be reserved for conditioning sessions only. Our goal is to maintain this great relationship with her, because soon enough she will outweigh us by a few hundred pounds, and we have to be careful to keep safe. Just like with many Zoo animals, we use positive reinforcement operant conditioning to help maintain this relationship. It is a simple process where we pair a desired behavior with a positive experience, such as being scratched behind the ear or being offered a favorite treat. In this case, an important behavior is for Mili to continue to allow us to touch her ears and legs. In the future, if we ever need to get a blood sample from her, these are two of the ideal spots on rhinos to draw blood from.

Recently, in the warm weather, I’ve been able to sit on the roof of the boma and watch these two romp around the yard, with the occasional visit of a Caravan Safari truck that has been able to get close enough to give its riders a quick glimpse of Sundari and Mili. I overhear the caravan guide remind our guests that Mom and calf are still getting used to the yard and their surroundings. Then, a unanimous “awwwww” erupts from the guests. And I have to agree: she is pretty adorable!

Mili and Sundari will remain in the boma for another month or so and then get introduced to the rest of the herd. I’ll keep you posted!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 2

Mili gets a mud bath from her keeper staff.

Mili gets a mud bath from her keeper staff.

Be sure to read Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 1.

Soon after the birth, the 24-hour watches stopped, but we still spent our entire workday observing and caring for this greater one-horned rhino duo. It was amazing to see just how quickly a rhino calf develops. After spending the entire first week with Mili after her birth, I was very much in tune with her behavior and could even see very subtle changes and developments.

Initially, her giant ears stayed down close to her head, and she moved quite slowly, still getting used to those brand-new legs. Her main goals in life, as were mother Sundari’s, were to eat and sleep. And with the occasional supplemental bottle, that’s about all she did. Mili would enter the calf area to be weighed every morning while Mom munched away on a snack. Mili still had somewhat uncoordinated movements, stepping the 4 inches up onto the scale, bumping into keepers on her way back down, and just kind of moving slowly everywhere she went.

One day, during the second week of observations, I noticed that Mili was starting to pay more attention to the things around her. Instead of her usual routine of following Mom around, she investigated items that caught her attention. She rubbed her face back and forth on top of some grain that Sundari had clumsily spilled on the ground, trying to figure out what these little, round pellets were. She became distracted by things in her room: an empty food tub, a branch of ficus that Sundari had not devoured yet, or a small scrap of hay. She was obviously more aware of her surroundings, thus more distracted when we tried to get her attention. We were no longer the most interesting thing in her world.

During week three, the 190-pound (86 kilograms) rhino ran around everywhere before skidding to a halt right in front of us, as if showing off her still-awkward legs. Her ears stuck straight up now and moved around searching for sounds, just like her mom’s ears. She was spending more time playing with Sundari, which was mostly Mili playing while Mom was trying to sleep. Also, her mode of moving around went from a slow walk to a run! Some mornings, she would have to get all this playing out of her system before she would drink her bottle. After about 10 minutes, she would surrender, open mouthed and out of breath from running, but ready to eat. Every week marked significant progress in her development.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


Helping Rhino Calf Mili, Part 1

Mili is fed by Melodi Tayles, a lead keeper at the Safari Park.

Mili is fed by Melodi Tayles, a lead keeper at the Safari Park.

I sat in the dark, nestled in a bed of hay entering notes into the computer with only a lantern by my side. It was a cold night, and surprisingly, the fluffy hay bed was keeping me warm. Above the hum of the generator, I heard some stirring. The Safari Park’s newest greater one-horned rhino calf, Shomili (Bengali meaning “beauty and elegance”; Mili for short) was awake and searching around to nurse from first-time mom, Sundari. I peered through the room with my flashlight and saw her poking her face around Mom’s belly. “Come on,” I thought, “you guys can figure this out.” I patiently waited for the calf to latch on and nurse. I noted the time in our records. We were on round-the-clock watch for this little rhino and her mom to make sure they were bonding and nursing.

Rhinos are born in the wild without supervision or intervention all the time, of course, but this little rhino needed a little extra keeper care. We pay careful attention to even the smallest details in our animals. A very important part of the dam/calf bonding process is making sure the little one is getting enough milk. In this case, we just weren’t sure. Sundari seemed to be going through the motions of feeding her calf, but she didn’t seem to have as much udder development as we would expect and as we’ve seen from other rhino moms. Additionally, Mili was a little on the small side at birth, only 127 pounds, when the species’ average birth weight is 150 pounds. After much deliberation, brainstorming, and working together with the vets, we decided to offer Mili supplemental bottles, just to be on the safe side.

We began feeding her rhino calf-sized milk bottles a few times a day. Fortunately, Mili seemed to enjoy our attention, and Sundari approved of these interactions. How could we be so sure? For starters, Mili responded well to us by entering the rhino calf area, a space corralled by hay bales that she could access by walking under a bar that created a little “dog-door” just big enough for her to fit through. Here, we could get our hands on her, encourage her to walk onto the scale, as getting daily weights would be crucial to her development plan, and introduce her to the bottle.

Mili was very calm and inquisitive, which made this relationship develop smoothly. And, in this calf-only area, Mili could choose to leave us at any time and go right back to her mom. However, after just a few weeks, she was so friendly that we had to remind her to go back to Mom when playtime with us was over for the day! Whenever Mili visited with us, we gave Sundari plenty of treats to reinforce that she was doing an excellent job at being such a laid-back mom. The success of this project and relationship with Mili was mostly due to Sundari’s compliance and willingness to share her calf with us for a little while every day. What a cool mom!

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Giraffe Calf Introduction. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


A Creepy Night Watch

Tanaya peers over at scaredy-cat Jonnie.

I slowly descend the ladder one rung at a time, shifting my backpack around to protect my computer as I jump off onto the sandy ground. Bhopu is staring at me, surprised to see a keeper at dusk; we are usually scarce by the middle of the afternoon. I ignore his confusion and press on to get inside the boma. The sun is setting over the beautiful golden-brown hills while herds peacefully graze in configurations much different from their daytime routine. They seem out of place from what I am used to, but perhaps this is their nighttime routine, and I am rarely here to see it.

I scale the next ladder and quietly step inside. It is still quite light out, but the boma rooms are growing darker, and it is hard for me to make out the rhino without a flashlight. I set up my camp for the evening: clipboard full of notes from the last day’s watch, the portable computer to log this information, and my radio and phone. As I settle in for the evening, I hear a squeaking noise coming from the rafters. If I’ve learned anything from horror movies, it’s that I should most definitely investigate the source of the sound. Boy, is that a bad idea! I shine the light up at the wooden rafters and there, rocking back and forth, is a fuzzy little body hanging upside down. Great. I knew there were bats out here, but come on. I’ve only been here about five minutes, and I am already a little freaked out.

I hang up my lantern, and as it sways back and forth, I catch a glimpse of a fluttering winged shadow dancing around the back wall. I shiver. A filmmaker couldn’t write this anymore perfect! Again, I brush it off and turn my attention toward the pregnant rhino we are monitoring. This means that some of us take the night shift, which is actually pretty fun. I’ve had to do overnights many times throughout my career, but this is the first time that I’ve had uninvited company, or at least the first time that I’ve noticed the company—even creepier!

I try to ignore the rest of nature that comes alive at night and my own vivid imagination by working on documenting the notes we have taken so far. Every once in awhile, a bat does a very low fly-by, just above my head. I have to remind myself that they eat insects, not brown-haired zookeepers, but what if they run into me on the way to those tasty insects? I am especially amused by the irony that I work with 4,000-plus-pound animals that can, you know, not even notice if I am underfoot. But, as Tanaya munches her way through the hay pile in the barn, slurping, chewing, grinding, grunting, and making noises that I can only imagine the dinosaurs once made, I laugh at myself when I duck each time I hear the ominous sound of fluttering wings.

To top things off, every hour or so, the rest of the rhinos in the exhibit come “check in” with their friend in the boma. This sounds nice, doesn’t it? But in the middle of the night, these visits consist of a lot of sudden banging on bars, rubbing their thick skin along doors, and lots of aggressive vocalizations. Thanks to those big heads and giant nostrils, they emit loud, sharp chuffs of air and abrupt snorts that startle me almost every time. Sometimes, it is really quiet, and I only hear the sound of a 5,000-pound rhinoceros breathing heavily from outside the boma. It is so comical and weird at the same time! One of the cool things about the greater one-horned rhino is their impressive array of vocalizations: snorts, chuffs, squeaks, honks, grunts, and whistles. At night, though, it is a little intense. When I take a quick look outside, it’s pitch black, and all I can do is picture those giant bodies surrounding the boma while hatching a plan. This wouldn’t be at all intimidating if it was light outside. I work with them every day, and I can read them pretty well. Dim the lights, and it’s a completely different ballgame out here!

A sudden bang against the heavy metal door jolts me back to reality. I try to enjoy the rest of the night; it really is pretty cool to get the chance to observe them at night. They are so active! The time goes quickly and uneventfully, and I am able to get some work done while spending quality time with one of our coolest species.

A few more hours go by, and I see a pair of headlights searching their way around the service road. My replacement has arrived! It is time for me to pack up my things and take off for the night. I let my fellow keeper know about the observations I made during my shift and hand over the responsibility of keeping this rhino company until morning. I grab my belongings, step outside into the pitch black of the exhibit, and breathe a sigh of relief. I made it! I survived the night with one giant rhino and a bunch of harmless bats.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Rhinos: Back to Normal. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


Rhinos: Back to Normal

Tanaya and Sundari watch as Bhopu relaxes in a mud wallow on his first day back into the field exhibit.

I was hoping to write a short update about how we reintroduced the big guy, greater one-horned rhino Bhopu, back into the exhibit to meet up with rhino mom Alta and her calf, Charlees, and how everything went as expected and there was no drama. But as a zookeeper, I should know better: we can’t count on anything to go as expected when working with animals!

We had waited a few months to let Alta and Charlees scope out the exhibit on their own. Bhopu, who has been by himself in the boma yard since Charlee’s birth, is lovable, but honestly, does a rhino mom really need that hulking body following her around the exhibit while trying to bond with her little one and getting her accustomed to her new female herd-mates: Asha, Tanaya, Sundari, and Kaya? (See post, Where Are Those Rhinos?) Once they had the lay of the land and seemed comfortable, we decided it was time to bring Bhopu back into the mix. But, there’s really nothing gradual to this process. It’s as simple as opening the boma door and watching what happens. Using the rest of the herd to our advantage, we strategically chose a range of dates that offered a distraction to Bhopu that was too good to resist and would keep him occupied for a few days: we set him up on a date!

We monitor the girls’ estrous cycles pretty accurately by submitting weekly fecal samples to our Endocrine Lab for hormone and pregnancy analysis. We expect to see them cycle every four to six weeks (see Collecting Rhino Treasures: Poop!). We really only had one candidate to set up with Bhopu: Asha, the nine-year-old. We believed she would cycle sometime around the end of June, and these behaviors and signals would help make Bhopu’s transition a little easier for Charlees. Greater one-horned rhino estrous behaviors can range from subdued and subtle to very obvious and last from a few hours to a few days. If we missed this opportunity, we would have to wait another month or so. We waited and watched Asha like a hawk, listening closely for a whistle vocalization, a sign of agitation, or just that indescribable characteristic that keepers are just in tune with – looking to see if she seems different than her usual self.

As I drove around the exhibit one morning at the end of June, I noticed one of the female rhinos alone, walking the perimeter of the exhibit. Hmm. Even with binoculars, I couldn’t identify the isolated rhino, but the girls are almost always paired up: Alta and Charlees, Asha and her sister, Kaya, and Tanaya and her younger sister, Sundari. When one of these girls is alone, it can only mean one thing: she’s in estrus. Ordinarily, this occurrence wouldn’t be a big deal, but today we had a very small window of opportunity that we had to take advantage of immediately!

We gathered the troops, conversed via radios and cell phones to concoct a plan, and made sure we had extra vehicles available. First, we conferred to make sure we were all in agreement that this was the best opportunity and possibly the only sign of behavioral estrous that we might see. We all agreed and quickly met up in the exhibit.

With our trucks in position, we opened the heavy boma yard door, and Bhopu calmly exited. A little while went by, and Bhopu wasn’t picking up on any of Asha’s signals. Instead, he searched the exhibit and met up with each rhino. As he approached Alta, we were poised, 4-wheel drive engaged, ready to intervene any potential aggressive interactions. Alta, the super-protective mom that she is, roared at Bhopu and took off with her calf. Among the confusion, Alta and Charlees were separated from each other for a little while. We maneuvered our trucks around the very bumpy exhibit terrain, bouncing around while trying to reunite these two. Instinctively, Charlees tucked herself into the rocks way in the back of the field exhibit. Alta only searched the front of the exhibit! We had to try to get her to walk in the direction of Charlees, while timing it perfectly to encourage Charlees out of her hiding spot so Alta could spot her. This strategy took some effort on our part, but very soon they were reunited, and we all felt like we were in the clear.

That was a tough, but memorable, day. Alta is a great mom and continues to keep a careful watch over the little one. Charlees has had several subsequent interactions with Bhopu, and he’s been quite gentle with her, probably because Alta just gives him a look and a snort, and he respects her protectiveness. Charlees is really doing well on exhibit with the rest of the group. She readily approaches the feed truck and sometimes she even visits with the guests on the Caravan Safari Tours.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the field on the Safari Park’s Twitter feed.


Where Are Those Rhinos?

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!