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SOS Rhino : In the News : Current Rhino News : Friendship? Learn it from the rhinos

Friendship? Learn it from the rhinos


July 08, 2002

JOHANNESBURG: Zoologists have a little tale to tell about rhinos. It seems these intimidating beasts take companionship seriously, with most of them forming pairs that are mutually helpful. No other animal has been observed to form buddy pairs in this way, says Ron Swaisgood, who studies animal behaviour at San Diego Zoo in California.

"It's an incredibly original and creative idea," Swaisgood is quoted in a report in Nature. Adrian Shrader, an expert marksman, fires tranquillizers from a helicopter into the animal's hide. Game-catchers swoop in on the felled beast and implant a radio-transmitter deep in its horn.
Shrader used the radio signals to track rhino in South Africa's vast Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, an 896 square-kilometre reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Now, after two years' trailing, he has made a surprising discovery: that the beasts like companionship. When rhinos venture into new parts of the reserve, "they do it with a buddy", says Shrader, one that already knows the territory.

Going alone to a new place is hard work, says Swaisgood -- as every tourist knows, a friend can help you find the best watering holes and avoid the dangerous neighbourhoods. Similarly, white rhino buddies may help find food, water and avoid predators' lairs. "It makes intuitive sense to pair up and check it out," says Swaisgood.
In the early 1900s, there were fewer than 50 southern white rhino. There are now more than 12,000 in the wild, thanks in part to successful animal management in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park.

"It's one of the great conservation success stories," says Shrader. When the reserve reaches its rhino capacity, the surplus animals are removed from particular spots and shipped to zoos and game reserves.

Remaining rhino were known to disperse into the 'vacuum zones' from which previous occupants had been removed - but it was unclear what made them move. Shrader observed that teenage rhino, who spend up to 12 years a-roaming after leaving their mothers, form alliances with fellow-rhinos during that time lasting days or years. Eventually, they choose a territory to settle in, the report said.

Following buddies "explains how rhino are finding these man-made areas", says Shrader. The findings could strengthen rhino management programmes by highlighting the importance of keeping a few animals in the empty zones to help dispersal. And animals sent elsewhere in the world could be allowed to get to know potential buddies through a fence before they are released, suggests Swaisgood.



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