The San Diego Zoo obtained its first rhinoceros in 1952, a two-year-old black rhino calf from Kenya. Named Sally, she was an immediate hit with zoogoers. However, despite two mates, she failed to breed. Finally, 40 years after Sally’s arrival, a black rhino was born here in 1992. He was named Werikhe in honor of Michael Werikhe, “the rhino man.” Mr. Werikhe was a Kenyan conservationist known for his long "rhino walks” to educate people about the plight of the rhino and to raise money to support rhino reserves. He is a good example of what one person can do to make a difference!
Greater one-horned rhinos first came to the Zoo in 1963, and this species was among the original animals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when it opened to the public in 1972. Just three years later, the Park welcomed its first greater one-horned rhino calf and has had breeding success with this species ever since.
In 1971, 20 southern white rhinos arrived at the Safari Park from South Africa to become the founding generation of the Park’s white rhino herd. From the original 20 animals, which we refer to as the founder animals, 93 more have been born, including our newest calf, Kayode, born in February 2013. Most of these have moved on to live in other facilities around the world. Kids love to climb all over our life-sized bronze statue of Mandala, a male white rhino brought to the Park from the San Diego Zoo.
Mandala had lived with a female partner at the Zoo, but the two rhinos had never showed any romantic interest in each other. When Mandala arrived at the Park, he was inspired by its larger exhibit space and by the other females that had been brought from South Africa. He fathered the first white rhino to be born at the Park. When his former Zoo mate joined the Park's herd a bit later, she, too, had a calf. Mandala went on to sire 50 offspring! A founder female, Nthombi, raised 10 calves of her own and was a surrogate mother to 2 more. Born in Africa in 1966, she is currently the oldest of our rhinos, living in the twilight of her life.
Today, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has the largest crash of rhinos and the most successful managed-care breeding program for rhinos anywhere in the world. We currently have eastern black rhinos, southern white rhinos, a northern white rhino, and greater one-horned rhinos. The Park holds the record for the most rhinos born in a zoo: 165 from 3 species, including 5 generations of black rhinos and 7 generations of greater one-horned rhinos. One of our youngest calves is a fifth-generation greater one-horned rhino, the first such birth in the world!
For centuries, the rhino existed largely unchallenged by other animals. But the advent of high-powered weapons brought a new and deadly enemy: humans. Over the ages, rhino horn has been used to treat illnesses, especially fevers. Yet like our fingernails and hair, rhino horn is made of keratin and has no healing properties. In Africa, thousands of rhinos were slaughtered each year just for their horn, used for traditional medicines in Asia and dagger handles in the Middle East. By the early 1990s, the population of black rhinos had been reduced by 96 percent and today stands at just over 5,000 animals.
To try to stop the slaughter, African countries began working to protect their rhinos, China no longer approved the use of rhino horn for traditional medicines, and countries in the Middle East promoted dagger handles made of synthetic materials. These efforts reduced rhino poaching measurably. Today, however, that has all changed, and the increasing price paid for rhino horn encourages greedy folks, eager for quick cash and now often affiliated with criminal syndicates, to kill these magnificent animals just for their horns.
There are now just four northern white rhinos Ceratotherium simum cottoni left on Earth. Three remain in the care of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, and one remains in the African plains exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park: a female named Nola. While the northern white rhinos at the Safari Park were never able to successfully breed, this was most likely due to their age when they arrived at the facility.
Intensive anti-poaching and habitat protection efforts in the wild have helped some rhinos make a comeback. Poaching in Indonesia has been almost eliminated, thanks to that country’s Rhino Protection Units, and Sumatran rhino population numbers are on the rise, now reaching about 100 animals. But there is still heavy poaching in South Africa; that country’s average loss is about one rhino per day. And there are fears that the Javan rhino may soon become extinct, as so few of them can be found. Less than 50 Javan rhinos live in a national park on Java, Indonesia, where they are protected; it is believed that there are no Javan rhinos anywhere else.
Help for rhinos
San Diego Zoo Global has done a great deal of conservation work with rhinos, especially once our San Diego Zoo Safari Park opened in the 1970s. The Safari Park has the most successful captive breeding program for rhinoceroses in the world. There have been 92 southern white rhinos, 68 greater one-horned rhinos, and 13 black rhinos born at the Park since it opened 42 years ago, an important achievement for three species that are facing severe threats in the wild. Joining partners from around the world that support the International Rhino Foundation, San Diego Zoo Global is working to save the greater one-horned rhinoceros by translocating animals into safe habitat in Manas National Park, Assam. Currently, there are about 3,300 greater one-horned rhinos in native habitat.
All rhino species, whether in Asia or Africa, are critically endangered, but we won't give up hope as we continue to closely monitor radio-collared rhinos for years to come. Long-term conservation is our goal, as well as enlisting local community support for rhino recovery. San Diego Zoo Global supports the International Rhino Foundation by an annual grant and by having the Safari Park’s curator of mammals, Randy Rieches, sit on its board of directors. This support allows us to help fund conservation and rhino protection units in every country that rhinos are found.
Visiting the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park helps support rhino conservation, too. We can all work together to ensure a future for rhinos.
You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.