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Strategy to Save Northern White Rhino Is Launched; New Genetic Technologies Offer Hope for Species

Global_logo_color webWith support from the Seaver Institute, geneticists at San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are taking the initial steps in an effort to use cryopreserved cells to bring back the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction. Living cells banked in the Frozen Zoo® have preserved the genetic lineage of 12 northern white rhinos, including a male that recently passed away at the Safari Park. Scientists hope that new technologies can be used to gather the genetic knowledge needed to create a viable population for this disappearing subspecies.

  “Multiple steps must be accomplished to reach the goal of establishing a viable population that can be reintroduced into the species range in Africa, where it is now extinct,” said Oliver Ryder Ph.D., Director of Genetics for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “A first step involves sequencing the genomes of northern white rhinos to clarify the extent of genetic divergence from their closest relative, the southern white rhino.”

The next step would require conversion of the cells preserved in the Frozen Zoo® to stem cells that could develop into sperm and eggs.  A process to do this was successfully developed in the laboratory of Dr. Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Research Institute and published in 2011.

“If we can take reprogrammed cells and direct them to become eggs and sperm, we can use in vitro fertilization to generate a new animal,” said Jeanne Loring, Director of Regenerative Medicine for the Scripps Research Institute. “Bold new initiatives are required to save endangered species, and we recognize the application of stem cell technology using cells in the Frozen Zoo® provides hope for preventing extinctions, with scientific innovation helping to lead these efforts.”

Researchers at the Safari Park have been working for decades to breed the species but had only four aged individuals to work with. After the recent death of the male rhino, Angalifu, reproductive physiologists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research collected and cryopreserved 200 vials of sperm and 75 vials of testicular tissue.  This sperm, along with previously collected semen saved in the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo®, will be utilized for future assisted reproduction efforts.

“The reproductive system of rhinos is very complex and there is still so much we do not know,” said Barbara Durrant Ph.D, reproductive physiologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “We will meet the challenge to save this beautiful animal by combining recent advances in genetic and reproductive technology with our expertise in animal care and welfare.”

The Seaver Institute has awarded San Diego Zoo Global $110,000 to fund whole genome sequencing of northern and southern white rhinos in an effort to characterize genetic diversity. Understanding the genetic differences between rhino species will allow scientists to determine what assisted reproduction mechanisms may be used for future conservation.

“The Seaver Institute supports fundamental research and innovative inquiry for particular projects that offer the potential for significant advancement in their fields,” said Victoria Dean, President for the Seaver Institute. “We are interested in supporting this project which will take advantage of the, until now, theoretical value of the Frozen Zoo.”

Only one northern white rhino, an elderly female, remains at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not reproduced.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents.  The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network reaching out through the internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide.  The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
 

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Feeling Better and Getting Her Nails Done: Northern White Rhino at San Diego Zoo Safari Park Gets Pedicure

Northern white rhino Nola receives a regularly scheduled pedicure at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Northern white rhino Nola receives a regularly scheduled pedicure at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Nola, a critically endangered 40-year-old northern white rhino, received some pampering and a pedicure earlier today at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. While keepers Jane Kennedy and Mary Weber-Evans gave Nola a rub down and scratched her ears, keeper Ken McCaffree trimmed the 4,000-pound rhino’s nails. The elderly Nola, who was under veterinary care for a sinus infection until recently, is feeling much better and seems to enjoy the extra-special care by her keepers.

Most rhinos wear their nails down just by walking, but Nola’s nails grow at a particularly fast rate. To provide optimal health, keepers provide Nola with nail trims about every three weeks. She is the only rhino at the Safari Park who receives pedicures. Keepers use the same type of tools to trim Nola’s nails as are used to trim horses’ hooves. Most pedicure sessions last about 30 minutes, but keepers work as long as Nola will allow. When Nola is done, she lets the keepers know by standing up and walking away.

Nola is one of just five northern white rhinos left in the world. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not reproduced. Poaching for its horn has brought the northern white rhino to such critically low numbers. 

Photo taken on Feb. 19 by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Wild Romance

Anytime is the right time for "romance" among rhinos.

Anytime is the right time for “romance” among rhinos.

“There’s a rhyme and reason to the wild outdoors,” sings Elton John in The Lion King. Disney’s Simba and Nala aren’t the only ones who “can feel the love tonight” during the Valentine’s Day season. Perhaps you want to know about the wacky, wild, and sometimes familiar romance rituals of the Safari Park animals? During this season of love, now’s your chance.

Some of the largest lovers at the Safari Park are southern white rhinos. Instead of mating seasonally like deer, breeding females can go into estrus any time of the year. Solitary, territorial males horn-wrestle one another for the privilege of mating with an estrus female. The winner approaches his intended mate with a wheezy, hic-throb noise—kind of a “Hey baby. How you doin’?” a la Friends character Joey Tribbiani. In an attempt at seduction, the male rests his head on the female’s rump. If she’s willing, mating lasts about 30 minutes. Over the years, “love” has definitely been in the air among the southern white rhinos at the Safari Park: they have produced 93 calves and counting.

Get the Party Started: Once their courtship ritual is rolling, all the flamingos in this flock will have their wings out.

Get the Party Started: Wing-spreading is one part of a flamingo flock’s courtship ritual.

In contrast to the rhinos’ cumbersome courtship, greater flamingos look like a precision drum line during their elaborate courtship rituals. The flamingo colony, or flamboyance, marches together in shallow water while honking, abruptly switching directions. The birds also head-flag, rhythmically turning their heads side-to-side, and salute each other with outstretched wings to display their contrasting colors. When a female finds a desirable male, she leaves the flamboyance and heads to slightly deeper water. The male vaults onto the female’s back and plants his feet on her wing joints, followed by an acrobatic dismount over her head. After mating, the pair begins building a volcano-shaped mud nest. Females lay a single egg, and both parents take turns incubating it for 28-32 days. Flamingo mating is seasonal, occurring during the rainy season to take advantage of the abundant food and mud.

Unlike flamingos, African lions don’t have a breeding season. Instead, mating usually occurs when a male assumes control of a pride. Lionesses only have a four to seven day estrus window, and the male makes the most of it. Although lions are world-renowned for their marathon sleep sessions, they also break records in the mating category. Lions usually mate for eight to 68 seconds at a time every 25 minutes over a four-day period; pairs may mate up to 100 times in one day! During this time, the male guards the female to keep the competition away. If the mating is successful, three and a half months later the female delivers a litter of one to four cubs. The females in a pride communally nurse their cubs for about seven months.

It may look like he's blowing a kiss, but this male is checking to see if the female is ready to mate.

It may look like he’s blowing a kiss, but this male is checking to see if the female is ready to mate.

While lions have some of the longest mating sessions in the animal kingdom, giraffes have some of the shortest. Copulation lasts barely a second, but it’s no “stretch” to say that giraffes are foreplay nerds. Interested males practically do a litmus test to evaluate females! A male closely follows an estrus female, waiting for the right moment to nudge her hind leg—her cue to urinate. Next, he sips a sample of the urine and curls his upper lip, opening the Jacobson’s organ on the roof of his mouth in a behavior called the Flehmen response. This allows him to test the female’s hormone levels to see if she is ready to breed—picture a connoisseur sampling a fine wine.

This year, forget the fancy dinner and flowers for Valentine’s Day. Come to the Safari Park and marvel at wild romance. Maybe you’ll even imagine strains of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” playing in the background…

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gaur Game Plan.

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Critically Endangered Northern White Rhino at San Diego Zoo Safari Park Returns to the Field

NolaNola, a critically endangered 40-year-old female northern white rhino, who has been under close medical watch for the past 11 days in a boma at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, is showing signs of improved health and returned to her 65-acre field enclosure today where she was greeted by Cape buffalo that also share her habitat.

The elderly Nola was placed under veterinary care on Saturday, Dec. 27, after her keepers noticed she had reduced appetite and activity levels and had a thick nasal discharge. To provide the opportunity for optimal health, Nola was moved to a heated enclosure inside the South African Plains field exhibit to provide her comfort from the recent chilly weather and allow the animal care team to keep close watch over her. Veterinarians determined that, in addition to Nola’s age-related issues, she has a sinus infection and they are treating her with antibiotics.

Keepers report Nola was pleased to be back in the field where she has ample space to exercise and can enjoy time with her companion, a 45-year-old male southern white rhino named Chuck.

Nola is one of just five northern white rhinos left in the world. Three other northern white rhinos are at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos have not been able to breed. Poaching for its horn has brought the northern white rhino to such critically low numbers.

Photo taken on Jan. 8, 2015, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Rhino with a Runny Nose: Rare Rhino Undergoes Veterinary Exam at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Rhino ExamNola, a 40-year-old northern white rhino, underwent a veterinary exam earlier this morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, allowing associate veterinarian Meredith Clancy to swab her nostrils to collect mucus samples as keepers Kim Millspaugh and Mike Veale assisted.

The elderly Nola was placed under veterinary care on Saturday after her keepers noticed she had reduced appetite and activity levels and had a thick nasal discharge. The Safari Park’s veterinary team is providing Nola with the optimal care to thrive by giving her an injection of antibiotics to ward off any possible infection and is awaiting results from blood work and today’s nasal samples to determine if further medical treatment is needed.

Nola, who is already being treated for age-related arthritis, has been moved to a heated enclosure inside her Asian Plains field exhibit to provide her comfort from the chilly weather and allow the animal care team to keep close watch over her.

Nola is one of just five northern white rhinos left in the world. Recently, Angalifu, a 44-year-old male northern white rhino who also lived at the Safari Park, died of age-related causes. Three other northern white rhinos are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and one is in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. The five remaining rhinos are all of an advanced age and have not been able to reproduce. Poaching for its horn has brought the northern white rhino to the brink of extinction.

Photo taken on Dec. 29, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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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.

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Elderly Northern White Rhino Passes Away at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

SafariParkA northern white rhino, Angalifu, passed away in the early hours of this morning, Sunday December 14. The male rhino, who was estimated to be 44 years of age, was under veterinary care for a variety of age related conditions. His death leaves only 5 Northern white rhinos left in the world: one elderly female at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 1 at a zoo in Czechoslovakia and 3 in Africa.

“Angalifu’s death is a tremendous loss to all of us.” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Not only because he was well beloved here at the Park but also because his death brings this wonderful species one step closer to extinction.”

Northern white rhinos have been brought to the brink of extinction due to poaching in Africa. Unfortunately only a few have been preserved at zoos and these have been largely non-reproductive.

“More than two decades ago we started working with the species here at the Safari Park.” Said Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive physiology for the San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research. “Unfortunately we only had three rhinos here at the Park and they were all of an advanced age. We were not able to get them to breed and we have been sadly watching their species being exterminated in the wild.”

In the wild rhinos are killed for their horns, a unique physiological feature made up of keratin (the same material in human fingernails). Many cultures believe rhino horn has medicinal value and the black-market in horns taken from poached animals continues to thrive.

Protected from the poaching that has wiped out northern white rhinos in Africa, Angalifu has been living at the Safari Park since his arrival from the Khartoum Zoo in the late 1980s. Although holding out little hope for the species, conservationists at San Diego Zoo Global continue to work to find a way to recover the species. Semen and testicular tissue from the male rhino have been stored in the Frozen Zoo with the hope that new reproductive technologies will allow recovery of the species.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the mission of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The important conservation and science work of these entities is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of the Zoological Society of San Diego.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s weather patterns parallel those in our animals’ native African habitats: hot, dry, and sunny for most of the year with a rainy season from October through April. Like California, East Africa is prone to flash floods, droughts, and fires. So most of the animals in the African field exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park feel right at home.

Our animals also display seasonal preferences. Safari Park giraffes are most active during the summer months. Six giraffe calves were born this summer! The giraffes range across their entire 60-acre habitat and chow down on acacia leaves offered by guests on Caravan Safari tours. Frankly, it’s difficult to manage more than one giraffe feeding at a time on a Caravan Safari truck. Acacia leaves are the giraffes’ favorite part of their diet. The giraffes are so excited to eat from the guests’ hands that during the summer they descend on the trucks en masse and can get a little pushy with each other—but it’s quite fun for our guests!

If it’s raining, the giraffes huddle together under palm trees or man-made shelters and refuse to approach the Caravan Safari trucks for acacia leaves. My observations indicate that giraffes don’t like rain and prefer the dry, summer months.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

Rhinos and elephants are a different story. Southern white rhinos and African elephants are the Safari Park’s largest animals and need to stay cool in the summer. Some of our rhinos also spent this past summer pregnant, with 150 pounds of added weight. You can imagine how uncomfortable that was. To stay cool, they rest in the shade or wallow in man-made watering holes. When the mud from the watering holes dries on their skin, it acts like sunscreen and insect repellent to help protect their hairless skin from the harsh African or Escondido sun.

But when a storm first breaks over the Safari Park, the rhinos and elephants race around their exhibits, vocalizing to each other. I have never seen rhino and elephant calves as playful as they are during a rainstorm. Typically, only about one third of Caravan Safari tours get to feed the greater one-horned rhinos. During a rainstorm, the probability increases. That is, if the rhinos stop frolicking in the rain long enough to eat apples!

Unfortunately, California has been experiencing one of its severest droughts on record, which has impacted the Safari Park in innumerable ways. A lack of rainwater to irrigate the African field habitats is one. The majority of the grass in these habitats is African kikuyu grass, a hardy, water-wise species. However, it does need to be watered occasionally, because many of the ungulates in these habitats are grazers and depend on the grass for food. The keepers supplement the animals’ diets with hay, alfalfa, and pellets multiple times per day, but most of the ungulates are nature’s lawnmowers and instinctively perform natural grazing behaviors.

Additionally, the southern white rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo enjoy a gooey mud wallow. Without rainfall to restock the wallows, water recycled from the Safari Park’s water treatment plant and ponds fills the void. In this way, the Safari Park animals experience the advantages of a wet season without adding pressure to the California water shortage.

Hopefully it will rain in San Diego soon! Does anyone know a rain dance?

Elise Newman is a Safari Caravan guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Personable Petunia.

5

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.

4

Collecting Rhino Treasures: Poop!

Two of the Park's greater one-horned rhinos on the prowl for food.

What’s the equivalent of having a case of the “Mondays” as a zookeeper? How about accidentally throwing poop out of the truck window and being disappointed about it? Yup, this was my day last week. My job at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is anything but typical, and the mishaps are always out of the ordinary. When you ask a keeper how his or her day was, be prepared—we don’t hold back! You never know what kind of gory details we’ll share with you.

Once a week, we strategically collect fecal samples on all five greater one-horned rhino females and submit them to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research for hormonal analysis. These samples are really hard to get, but they provide tons of information about the rhinos’ reproductive patterns and help us determine which is pregnant, and when we should expect a baby rhino! (See Rhinos: Sounds of Romance.)

It may sound crazy that these samples are so hard to come by. Rhino poop is huge, and there’s a lot of it, but there’s a trick to collecting a single sample from a group that uses a communal dung pile. This pile is called a midden, and rhinos use it as a message station; they investigate the pile and then defecate in the same spot. While doing this, they root through the pile with their horn, scrape their hind feet, and then spread scent by walking through it and dispersing it with their feet.  The Safari Park rhinos use a midden, and they often line up and defecate one after the other. If you’re not on your game, it can be impossible to identify and collect even just one sample, let alone all five female samples, from this group of seven rhinos.

The ill-fated fecal samples in the rhinos' carrot bucket

Anyway, I was on a roll collecting samples. The group had spread out in the exhibit, so I was guaranteed to get samples from at least a few of them, if not all five that day. I already had two, and without thinking anything of it, I put the small sample cups into a bucket of carrots in the passenger seat, like I usually do. I spotted the other rhino girls across the exhibit and hurried over to them. I pulled up to a midden and called them to the truck. They walked over and some of them went to the pile while the rest came over and ransacked my truck! They yanked feed bags off the back, stole food from the tubs of goodies, and tried to stick their heads in the windows!

One of the younger girls, Sundari, investigated the pile and provided a sample. Great! I was ready to drive closer and pick it up before another rhino could ruin it, but first I had to get the rest of the rhinos away from my truck so I could drive. Instinctively, I grabbed a handful of carrots from the bucket and carelessly threw them out the window for the rhinos to chase. Greater one-horned rhinos love food, and this method usually works, but as soon as the carrots went sailing off into the exhibit, a small plastic cup caught my eye—I had tossed the sample right out the window with the carrots! Shoot! It landed only a few feet away, but I was surrounded by thousands of pounds of rhinoceros. I had no choice but to stay in my truck. I decided to maneuver the truck into position right over the sample cup to protect it.

The rhinos seemed particularly hungry that day and weren’t falling for my scattered carrot trick; they chose to feed from the truck buffet instead. Hmm. I had to get more creative, but as I was brainstorming, Bhopu, our 10-year-old male, lumbered over to the midden and began to…poop! He was ruining Sundari’s sample. I had to make a snap decision: stay and protect the sample under my truck or get closer to the midden to retrieve Sundari’s sample.

I figured the tiny sample cup wouldn’t attract much attention, so I momentarily abandoned it attempting to save Sundari’s sample. I sped forward and heard a crunch—oops! Oh well; I was committed, so I proceeded to the midden. Unfortunately, I was too late. Bhopu ruined Sundari’s sample, and I had driven over the other one. I was defeated by a bunch of hungry rhinos and my own uncoordinated efforts.

The rhinos grew bored with me and wandered away. I got out to retrieve the squished cup, and ta-da! Those cups are pretty tough; the cup was broken, but the sample was fine. All was not lost. Now, on with the rest of the day!

Whew! And that was just my morning.

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