Saturday, June 12, 2010

He’s not heavy, he’s my brother

Hot on the hooves of Samir, the 18-month greater one-horned male Indian rhino who arrived at Edinburgh Zoo on 5 May, Bertus, a second rhino arrived on 1 June from Rotterdam Zoo, and in the last week has been successfully introduced to his new home and his new ‘flat mate’.

The heaviest residents in the Zoo, (likely to weigh 2 – 2.5 tonnes when fully grown), means that introducing two of these powerful and potentially dangerous animals can be a tricky operation. Since Samir arrived at the beginning of May keepers have been working closely with him to get him settled in and relaxed in his new environment. When 18 month old Bertus arrived, keepers did consider a gradual introduction but due to his laid back nature, the decision was taken to integrate the two on the evening of his arrival. After much trepidation, keepers are relieved to report that the two have become firm friends and are acting just like brothers.

Sue Gaffing, Head Keeper for the rhinos said: “We’ve had Indian rhinos at Edinburgh Zoo since 2006 but when our males reach breeding age at about 5-6 years old they leave to start their breeding life in another zoo collection and are replaced by juveniles. In the wild, rhinos are solitary animals and only tend to come together to mate, but while they are young they can live happily alongside each other. But you are never quite sure how a new pair coming from different collections will get on. In the past, their have been dominance struggles but this pair have been totally different. Bertus is incredibly relaxed and his chilled attitude has really rubbed off on Samir who was pretty nervous when he arrived. They are now inseparable, following each other around as if they are attached by an invisible rope! It is truly lovely to see and both are obviously enjoying each others company.”

Part of the role staff at Edinburgh Zoo play in the rhino breeding programme is to train new arrivals so that routine medical checks can be carried out without stress. As Sue continues: “The shear size and design of a rhino presents its own challenges from an animal management perspective, Rhinos have skin as thick as 3cm in places, so simply getting a blood sample can be difficult. We use positive reinforcement training where the animal is rewarded for the behaviour we want. In the rhino’s case this allows us to get blood samples from behind the ear – the area where the skin is at its thinnest - as well as to get them to lift their hooves for inspection as rhinos are notorious for problems with their feet.”

For keepers the arrival of the new rhino meant a fond farewell to Fanindra who at nearly six years old and at an age to start breeding, has left to start a new life. He has now gone to Rotterdam and next week will be introduced to a female and they will hopefully breed. And who knows, but his offspring could end up at Edinburgh Zoo in the future.

In the past Indian rhinos could be found across the entire northern part of the Indian sub-continent. But their biggest enemy has always been man and populations declining drastically due to habitat loss, hunting and poaching to the brink of extinction in the early 20th century.

Listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) this means the Indian rhinoceros is considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. This listing reflects the recent boost in wild population numbers from 200 to 2,575.


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