Rhino Born And Bred In San Diego Now Living In Africa
Senior Keeper Sandy Craig unlocked the door to a livestock barn tucked in the southern corner of the African Swamp exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Craig pushed against a heavy gate and led fellow keeper Mike Veale to the small yard in the back of the complex known as a boma.
Veale carried a washbasin-sized plastic tub full of apples and carrots, treats for the boma’s resident — a young eastern black rhino named Eric.
“What's up big guy,” Craig asked as she walked slowly toward the big metal posts that separate the keepers from the large animal.
“Hey, who's my favorite rhino?” Craig asked in a soft soothing voice.
The 8-year-old bull is a young adult who is full of life and energy. That is why Craig and Veale do not ever get in the same enclosure with the rhino.
It is important to understand what the rhino is telling them, according to Craig. Certain cues let her know the rhino doesn’t mind her presence.
"I call it the quiet eyes where he's blinking slowly, not with big eyes looking around anxiously,” Craig said. A relaxed rhino means keepers can work with him.
“Same with the ears, you kind of know when the ears are calm and not alert," Craig said.
Several months of this close-quarter training led to concrete results. The animal is relaxed enough with these two trainers that both can reach their arms past the metal posts to touch the rhino.
While the rhino is dangerous, there is a lot of physical contact.
“Good boy Eric. Good boy,” Veale said as he stroked the side of Eric’s face and fed him a carrot.
Keepers prepare rhino to move
“Target," Craig said.
The "target" command got Eric’s attention. It means a treat is coming if he does what keepers want. Eric turned toward Craig and stuck his nose between two of those thick metal posts. There is a loud clang every time Eric's horn hits the metal.
Rhinos can't see well, but their sense of smell and hearing are both sharp. Eric knows who these keepers are and they have been able to teach him specific tasks.
"It's all up to him,” Veale said.
If the rhino cooperates, he has learned that he gets something back.
“We give him the extra good goodies, his favorite treats," Veale said.
Eric showed affection by offering keepers his upper lip. The pointy appendage looks rough but is softer than one might think. He pushed his nose through the posts for a sort of handshake.
Keepers built that trust to help train Eric for the journey to Africa.
“Normally we would just let him be a rhino out in the field and have fun doing his own thing, and we would work with him in a behavioral context — maybe just getting him familiar with us and asking him simple things," Veale said.
Training requires rhino to stay in the boma
But for several weeks keepers have restricted him to the boma and worked to build familiarity with the crate he will be moved in.
“In the yard, we have the option to work between bedrooms, protective keepers grates, where we stand behind and then the crate itself. So we have several areas where we are working with him on a daily basis, multiple times to kind of reinforce that positive training," Veale said.
Keepers lure Eric into a narrow hallway which leads to the cage. In one training session recorded by the zoo, Eric got several handfuls of treats from keeper Sandy Craig once he poked his head through the bars of the cage.
Eric is the first captive born and raised rhino the San Diego Zoo has released into the wild. It has been done with other animals, but the park’s curator of mammals, Steve Metzler, said it is rare.
One reason Eric is a prime candidate is because his parents were prolific breeders at the Safari Park.
The rhino's genes are over represented in the United States and the agency that tracks genetic diversity in the captive North American population would not recommend him for breeding. That meant he wasn't likely to breed here.
But his gene line doesn't exist in Tanzania and Eric could be a key part of an effort to reintroduce endangered black rhinos to the Serengeti.
The eastern black rhino will be eased into his new surroundings, starting in a boma similar to the one in San Diego and keepers think that will go well.
"He's not a typical zoo rhino. He's been living with cape buffalo and with African antelope and African birds and so his life here is actually pretty similar to what his life is going to be in Africa," Metzler said.
If the animal adjusts well, the rhino will get access to a larger area in the park.
Time to adjust
Eventually, keepers hope to let Eric have the run of the reserve, but that will happen under close supervision because he needs to acclimate to living on his own.
"It's an area that is very wild, but it is also still protected and they have people that are going to be doing observations constantly. So they'll be watching him. They'll be watching his body condition. They'll be watching to see how often he's visiting the watering hole. They'll be watching to see if he's eating plants, what plants he is eating," Metzler said.
Eric also won't be the biggest kid on the block anymore. The rhino will have to interact with elephants and other animals, and keepers want to make sure he is safe from the biggest threat his species faces — man.
"Poaching, of course, is always a concern for rhinos in Africa. That's why we've already been over there. We've checked out their plans. They have an amazing anti-poaching unit, great surveillance, and we know that that's a secure location," Metzler said.
Eric left the Safari Park in his crate this past weekend and arrived in Tanzania on Tuesday.