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Texas leads in rhino conservation

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter

NORTH TEXAS – Suzanne Sprague: Rhinos began coming to Texas in serious numbers about ten years ago. They had been poached almost to the point of extinction in parts of Africa plagued by political instability. But in an effort to save and study the remaining population, the government of Zimbabwe began exporting some of its wild rhinos to zoos across the world. Texas became a leading destination and now has more rhinos than any other U.S. state.

Tom Foose, Program Director, International Rhino Foundation: I think the reason Texas is a leader is, obviously, you're a very large state.

Sprague: Tom Foose of Pennsylvania is the program director for the International Rhino Foundation.

Foose: You have a lot of zoos. You have a lot of money. You have a lot of people who are interested in conservation. The habitat in Texas is indeed very similar to where, particularly, the African rhinos live today.

(Ambient sound of rhino snorting and shuffling.)

Sprague: Perhaps nowhere is that habitat more similar than at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Here, black and white rhinos roam through one to two acre pens that resemble the flat, grassy African savannah.

(Ambient sound of rhino getting its stomach rubbed.)

Adam Eyers, Animal Care Specialist, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center: She'll lay down. They love this kind of stuff. Oh yeah, this feels good, doesn't it? You little toot.

Sprague: Ajabu is the newest rhinoceros born at Fossil Rim. At just two months old, she weighs about 500 pounds and has a thick coat of grey skin that feels like hard, hairy, leather. She's not exactly cuddly, and when she's grown she'll be able to charge at up to 30 miles an hour. But when animal care specialist Adam Eyers tempts her with a tummy rub, Ajabu is all charm.

Eyers: That's a girl. All the way.

Sprague: Ajabu, which means "surprise" in Swahili, is one of eleven rhinos at Fossil Rim. And the population is steadily growing. A black rhino baby is due this summer. And an adult male from Australia will likely arrive soon. That means Fossil Rim's 1500 acres are home to one of the largest populations of captive rhinos in the world.

Bruce Williams, Vice President of Conservation, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center: The purpose of our program was to provide an environment where a number of rhinos could be brought to one site in more of a large herd environment and try to create a more normal social grouping for the rhinos.

Sprague: Bruce Williams is Fossil Rim's vice president of conservation. Ideally, he would like one day to return some of these rhinos to the wild. But for now, Williams says the Center's primary concern is preserving the species.

Williams: We've focused our efforts here on site doing reproductive studies, to understand first just the basic biology of reproduction of black rhinos; and we've done that with a kind of novel approach using ultrasound.

Sprague: Fossil Rim is the first place to use ultrasound regularly on rhinos without anesthesia. These horned beasts, weighing in at two tons or more, willingly submit to x-rays and pregnancy exams.

Robin Radcliffe, Animal Health Director, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center: One of our rhinos will put its foot up when we ask it to, and they're well-conditioned; they're used to people, and that really helps us to evaluate them much more closely.

Sprague: Animal Health Director Robin Radcliffe was part of the team that conditioned and trained Fossil Rim's rhinos to accept the human touch. That made it much easier to ensure that little Ajabu's mother had a healthy 16-month pregnancy.

Radcliffe: Not only were we able to document that the rhino was pregnant, which allowed us to make important management changes back there, but also we were able to do some pretty neat things that we had never done before, like document the fetal sex early on, at about 80 days. We were able to determine which direction the fetus was coming, so we were prepared when the mother gave birth if we needed to intervene.

Sprague: To bring the rhinos near the ultrasound machine, Radcliffe entices them with sweet potatoes and apples, which they love to eat. (Ambient sound of rhinos eating.) But Fossil Rim can't afford to be laissez-faire about the rhinos' diet. Anne Ward with the Fort Worth Zoo says black rhinos, in particular, are susceptible to diseases which researchers think could be caused by foods eaten in captivity.

Anne Ward, Director of Nutritional Services, Fort Worth Zoo: If you compare their wild diet to their diet in the zoo, their wild diet has these plant compounds, like tannins, and tannins are known to bind iron.

Sprague: That means rhinos aren't getting much iron in the wild. But they may be getting too much iron in their food at zoos. So Ann Ward is about to embark on a unique two-year study of the black rhino's diet at the Fort Worth Zoo, Fossil Rim, the Dallas Zoo, and a private Texas ranch, and she says her study would be nearly impossible in another part of the country.

Ward: Most zoos can't hold lots of rhinos, so to be in a place with several institutions that will hold them, that makes studies more feasible.

Sprague: Ward hopes her study eventually will help rhinos in the wild as well. After all, says Fossil Rim's Robin Radcliffe, keeping rhinos locked up isn't the real reason Texas has embraced conservation.

Radcliffe: I don't think we'll ever save the rhino just in a zoo. To me, a rhino isn't really wild unless it's out in its own habitat and you can see it doing its natural behaviors and browsing; and they're just amazing creatures.

Sprague: For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.