Ready for a Rhino Relationship

Bandhu gets close to the keeper truck in the Safari Park's Asian Plains exhibit.

Long-distance relationships can be difficult for anyone—there’s the late night phone calls, conflicting schedules, and rare occasions to actually get to spend time together. But consider what it would be like as a rhinoceros in a long-distance relationship…impossible! That’s why we help them out by transporting them to zoos and conservation facilities where they can be with a genetically compatible mate. Our 2½-year-old male, Bandhu, from the Asian Plains field enclosure at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, was becoming mature and ready for a rhino relationship. The problem was, his soon-to-be girlfriend, carefully selected for him by a team of geneticists and animal managers, lived across the country. Unless they could live at the same zoo, their relationship was doomed.

We knew it was time to get him set up with a breeding mate when he turned two and began demonstrating subtle reproductive cues in response to the females’ behavior (see post Rhinos: Sounds of Romance). One morning, I decided to observe Bandhu for a little while because he seemed more playful than usual. He was tossing his head around, trotting, and trying to get the girls’ attention. Bandhu was showing interest in Kaya, a female who is pretty close in age to him. His playful interactions with her were cute at first, until he lifted up his head and tried to rest his chin on her back, a telltale precursor to rhino breeding! Uh oh. Maybe no one else noticed. Hopefully, Bhopu, the sire of the group and Bandhu’s father, didn’t see that. This subtle action did not necessarily mean that he would try to breed her, but it was enough of a clue for us to keep a close eye on him. We wanted to be sure that he stayed out of trouble and did not inadvertently portray himself as a threat to Bhopu, who outweighs him by a few thousand pounds!

Bandhu, foreground, and his herdmates at the Safari Park

As a young pup in this herd, trying to compete with the sire isn’t a great idea. So that’s where we, as keepers and animal care managers, step in and play matchmaker. There’s a master list called a studbook for many of the endangered wildlife species, such as the greater one-horned rhino, that catalogs every individual in the United States and helps make decisions regarding who should breed with whom to keep this small, managed population genetically healthy. It’s like a zoo dating service. It turned out that our youngest rhino, the only offspring from a very genetically valuable Bhopu (see post Not Your Ordinary Rhino), would make an excellent mate for a female rhino at another facility. Once this decision was made, managers got a transport plan into place, and we began the necessary preparations to ensure a successful goodbye to our friend.

Like some of us, packing for a trip usually waits until the last minute. Well, in this case, we needed to help Bandhu start the packing process a few months in advance. We moved Bandhu into a smaller enclosure to begin getting him ready for his big trip. He received a comprehensive pre-shipment examination and was assessed as a healthy young male, approved for travel. Next, we had to acclimate him to spending some time in a portable crate. This is the same concept as crating your pet dog or cat for travel, but it’s rhino sized. Each day, we placed Bandhu’s diet of grain, produce, and hay in a crate that was safely secured to his stall and encouraged him to get used to being in there. After a few weeks of this practice, he was ready for his big move. When the day arrived to say goodbye to our youngest rhino, he responded well to entering the travel crate and was comfortably transported to his new home, where he would have some time to adjust before meeting his new mate.

It’s a tough part of the job to say goodbye to these animals that we work so closely with, but remembering the bigger picture, and the necessary practices to ensure a successful and healthy population, it’s exciting to think that we are able to contribute to it.

Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Identifying Rhinos: Take the Quiz.

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