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Northern White Rhinos – How To Save the Rarest Mammals In the World? (Part 1)

Three years. And a bucketload of expecations.

In 2009, 4 out of the 7 last remaining northern white rhinos were transferred from the Czech Dvůr Králové Zoo to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in the hope that natural surroundings close to their original habitat would prompt their breeding.

Three years on, there’s no offspring in sight, a fact that prompts many to ask: Why? Was the transfer a good decision?

Among the Rhinos

“To me, she’s pregnant. Look at the shape of her body,” says Mohammed Doyo, a caregiver in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Doyo points his finger at the female Fatu which is quietly grazing on a vast grass plain. It’s October, early morning, and Fatu is accompanied by a southern white rhino female and her calf. Together with Doyo, we are walking through the grass wet with dew. Southern rhinos are shy and run a bit further away, but Fatu is calmed down by Doyo’s voice and comes to greet him, happily tossing her head. Doyo scratches her, pats her and in the end a showy kiss comes.

Fatu is one of only four animals that were transferred to Kenya from the Czech Republic. Together with her mother Nájin and two males, Súdán and Suni, they are the only known hope for survival of the northern white rhinos.

If Doyo’s words about the pregnancy were true, it would make many happy. Born in 2000 in Dvůr Králové, Fatu is the youngest of the four. She is the last northern white rhino to be born in captivity. Their failure to breed in the zoo was the reason for the long trip to Africa. Many hailed the decision and presumed that natural surroundings close to their original habitat would lead to a viable breeding.

The last spotting of the wild northern white rhino was recorded three years ago. Since then they have been regarded as extinct in the wild. For this reason the specimens transferred to Ol Pejeta are the rarest mammals in the world and hence their fate is closely followed by the world’s conservation community. Súdán even appeared among the winners of this year’s World Press Photo competition – one of the images of the Rhino Wars series by Brent Stirton is his portrait. In the picture, three heavily armed men are guarding him.

However, the reality in Ol Pejeta is less spectacular. We have been combing through the terrain for a while, looking in vain for Súdán. Doyo is even coordinating us on a radio transmitter, but with no results. Doyo assures me that the anti-poaching team carefully patrols the enclosure we are walking in 24/7. Indeed, watchtowers are visible, and the anti-poaching team’s base is also close by.

Finally we see Súdán among whistling acacias. Together with Fatu he lives in a large (almost 300 hectares) enclosure. Part of it is covered by savannah with grass, the rest is open woodlands and bushes. We stop and Doyo closely inspects Súdán. The animal is as cool as cucumber but looks old and tired. It is not surprising – he is almost 40, quite an age for a rhino.

Súdán is the only one of the four northern white rhinos who was born in Africa. He was caught in 1975 in South Sudan. With the rest of the group he arrived in December 2009. According to Jana Myslivečková, a spokesperson for the Dvůr Králové Zoo, Súdán was the only of the group who immediately started to eat grass in his enclosure. “Maybe he remembered that type of vegetation from his youth,” said Myslivečková.

“That’s a fairy tale for the media,” says Jiří Hrubý, a zoologist from the same zoo who was for a few years in charge of caring for the rhinos. “Súdán just got outside after many hours in the cage, it was sunny, nice weather and the first thing he saw was something to eat. So he ate it. But not because he would remember it or because he was happy to be in Africa. He had no clue about it.”

However, every keeper who has seen the animals before and after their transfer agrees on one thing. “For those four individuals the transfer was really good. I saw them two weeks after their arrival and the change was huge. Their behaviour was totally different, they were so relaxed that I was just surprised,” says Hrubý, who was against the transfer initially. “But from the moment the decision to transfer them had been made, I aimed for doing the best I could to ensure that everything would turn out well for the rhinos.”

The complicated transfer was managed perfectly and the animals look good. Although Nájin and Suni live in an enclosure that is about 10 times smaller than the one with Fatu and Súdán, they still enjoy much better conditions than the Dvůr Králové Zoo could ever offer.

According to Batian Craig, who was in Ol Pejeta overseeing the rhinos’ acclimatization, their general health state has significantly improved too. “The animals that got off the airplane were completely different from the animals two weeks after the arrival or to the animals six months after the arrival,” he says. Skin problems disappeared and their general body conditions improved. “They were big, well-fed, heavy animals that hadn’t had a lot of exercise. Since then the whole bodies have tightened up and they’ve got muscle.”

At Ol Pejeta, life seems smooth for all. But what about the expectations and the original goal of the rhinos’ transfer?

Follow the story in Part 2 on Wednesday 12.26.2012

Northern White Rhinos are the rarest and also most endangered mammals in the world. Only seven rhinos are known to live. The northern white rhinos originally ranged over parts of northwestern Uganda, southern Chad, southern South Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and northeastern DR Congo. They have not been spotted in the wild for several years. All known individuals live in captivity, four of them in Ol Pejeta, Kenya, one female in the Dvůr Králové Zoo, Czech Republic, and one old couple in the San Diego animal park, USA. Animals in Ol Pejeta and females in Dvůr Králové and San Diego are property of the Dvůr Králové Zoo. Only the male in San Diego is originally from a zoo in Khartoum. Experts can’t agree whether the last seven northern white rhinos are distinct species Ceratotherium cottoni or just northern subspecies of white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum cottoni. Scientific article concluding that the rhinos are of distinct species was published in 2010 in PLoS One under the title The Sixth Rhino: A Taxonomic Re-Assessment of the Critically Endangered Northern White Rhinoceros.

All images by Jan Stejskal/ThinkBrigade.com

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About The Author(s)



Jan Stejskal

Jan Stejskal

Journalist, based in the Czech Republic

Journalist, currently an editor-in-chief of the Ekolist.cz - leading Czech on-line news, comments and features on environment and nature. As he has to illustrate his stories, he takes photos as well. Master degree in anthropology.

Comments (3)

  • Janine

    Hi Jan!

    Really enjoyed reading this article. What a priviledge to have been there and interacted with them.

    My concern is that it seems as if their time in captivity has perhaps made them too trusting of humans, although they are well guarded as you described and from the picture it is visible that the horn has been removed.

    As you know, rhino poaching in South Africa has reached epidemic proportions. In this year alone 633 rhino were killed for their horns (http://www.stoprhinopoaching.com/statistics.aspx), which are erroneously believed to carry medicinal properties in the East.

    Many South Africans have come together in a nation-wide drive to stop this, and despite our best efforts, the rhino poaching mafia still run aloof.

    The only form of salvation for the rhinos has been either to dehorn them or to inject their horns with poison, and to ensure that the media spreads the news.

    It truly is such a sad state of affairs and if we don’t take further preventative action the rhino will indeed become an extinct species.

    Well done on writing yet another excellent article!

    Best wishes from Cape Town,
    Janine Esterhuizen

    Reply
    • Jan Stejskal

      Jan Stejskal

      Hi Janine!

      Thank you very much for your words.

      The situation in your country is terrible, such a high number! But I’m afraid the situation in Kenya is getting close to that of SA (not in numbers but in proportion). I read that they try to use drones to protect rhinos in SA and what is interesting, Ol Pejeta in Kenya now does the same and tries to raise money for drones through crowdfunding, more here http://www.indiegogo.com/olpejeta

      Let’s hope this could be a small step on the way ahead.

      Once more thank you.
      Many greetings to Cape Town from the frozen Czech mountains sends

      Jan

      Reply

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