September 22, 2015

By Martha Fischer
Curator of Mammals/Ungulates and Elephants

World Rhino Day, Sept. 22, was established to celebrate all five surviving species of rhinoceros—black, white, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan—and to bring awareness to the plight these critically endangered species are facing in the wild.

In the case of the black rhino, European hunters were responsible for its early decline. It was not uncommon for five or six rhinos to be killed in a single day for food or simply amusement. Then, European settlers colonizing Africa continued this senseless slaughter. Between 1970 and 1992, the population of black rhinos dropped by 96 percent. By 1993, only 2,300 individuals survived in the wild. Conservation organizations began a battle to protect African rhinos, but despite their efforts, the population is only at a fraction of what it once was.

That’s because all rhino species continue to be heavily poached for their horns. Rhino horns are made of keratin—the material found in human hair and fingernails. It has no medicinal value, but rhino horn concoctions have been prescribed in traditional Asian medicine for about 2,000 years. Until the late 1800s, the effect on the species was manageable, but then, extensive trophy hunting began decimating populations. The demand for rhino horn and the poaching continue despite the proven fact that rhino horn has no known medicinal value. Clearly something must be done to stop rhinos’ rapid decline, and U.S. zoos are beginning to shoulder that responsibility.

The Saint Louis Zoo is taking steps to help ensure rhinos will be on this planet for future generations by supporting the breeding of captive rhinos. Take Ruka, our first black rhino calf born at the Saint Louis Zoo in 20 years. Ruka spent his days with his mother, Kati Rain, in the Zoo’s River’s Edge until this summer when the 4-year-old took a two-day trip all the way to Oregon. His journey was carefully monitored with a wireless camera and temperature and carbon monoxide sensors. Zoo staff, including a veterinarian, rode along with Ruka to check his condition at frequent intervals.

The Zoo's black rhinos are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Black Rhino Species Survival Plan (SSP)—a program to manage a genetically healthy population of black rhinos. Ruka was determined to be a good genetic match for a female rhino living at the Oregon Zoo, another AZA-accredited zoo in Portland, Oregon. Breeding the pair is part of accredited zoos’ collaborative efforts to create a sustainable population of this critically endangered species.

In addition, the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa helps to protect rhinos and other wildlife in Kenya. The Center provided funds to construct a waterhole for rhinos and other wildlife living in the Sera Community Conservancy and Rhino Sanctuary in Samburu, where 11 black rhinos were recently translocated from private conservancies. It’s been 25 years since black rhinos have lived in Samburu. Reports are that these translocated rhinos are thriving in the Sera Rhino Sanctuary and becoming comfortable in their new home. Rhinos are heard vocalizing nearby during the night, and footprints around the waterhole each morning indicate that they are frequenting it. So there is hope on the horizon.