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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : July 2000 : Millennium baby

Millennium baby

By Craig Robinson
The Prague Post
July 19, 2000

- The rarest of animals, the northern white rhino makes a last stand at the Dvir Kralove zoo The star isn't much interested in being photographed just now. When the flash pops, she blinks, lets out a little melodic squeak, and sidles back to the bar - in this case, her 3-ton mother's nipple. This celebrity should be used to the paparazzi treatment by now. Her birth was broadcast live on the Internet, and twin video cameras have kept constant surveillance of her ever since. She's the latest addition to a proud and distinguished bloodline, and she's one of only 35 of her kind: the northern white rhinoceros, the third -largest land mammal and the most endangered species in the world.

Eight of these giants live in east Bohemia's Dvir Kralove zoo; the only zoo in the world to successfully breed these animals in captivity. It's only happened four times. But against the odds, "Baby" was born without complications in the wee hours of June 29, after a typical 16-month gestation period.

Baby is still awaiting a name; an ongoing contest to find one has thus far drawn a blank. Her mother's name is Najin, and with family names like Sudan, Suni, Nabire and Nasima, tradition holds that the name should reflect her African roots. Her father, Saut, is an African native, born in the wild in Sudan. He's had an auspicious career, including some time as special guest of the San Diego Zoo in California, where they attempted to breed him. Unfortunately, San Diego's rhino cows were too old to mate, and Saut was returned to the Czech Republic. But Randy Reiches, head curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo's wild animal park, still maintains close contact with the staff at Dvir Kralove. "They deserve a big round of applause for this," Reiches said. "It's a huge event for the whole rhino community. The only hope these animals really have is in captivity, and so we couldn't be more excited. "Dvir Kralove has a long history working with these rhinos, and it's a very fine zoo. It's definitely not all luck that they've been the only ones to breed them."

The magic horn As with most endangered species, the rhinos' doom is a result of human greed and expansion. A rhino's most distinctive characteristic has also been its curse: Humans have hunted the beasts to near extinction for their horns, which command a high price on the black market for their fabled aphrodisiac qualities and as material for dagger handles. Ironically, they aren't really horns at all, but rather hardened clumps of keratin fibers - the same substance that makes up human hair and nails.

The horns have made rhinos a prime target for poachers over the centuries. The ready availability of arms in the troubled Congo region (the northern white rhino's homeland), and the occupation of national parks by rebel forces, have reduced the population by 80 percent since 1979. Habitat destruction and recent droughts have further devastated the species. Unlike their close cousin, the southern white rhino, this species exists solely under the protection of humans. Of the 35 documented animals, roughly 20 are roaming in the relative freedom of the Garamba National Park in the Republic of Congo.

The remaining rhinos are in various zoos around the world, with the largest number residing in Dvir Kralove. If life must be lived in captivity, the Dvir Kralove zoo seems to be doing its best to make the rhinos' environment as close to nature as possible. For now, at this delicate stage, Najin and Baby are kept in a cage consisting of two sections, each about 25 square feet. It smells of wet grass and mud, and the temperature is a humid 20 degrees Celsius. For animals that enjoy a good mud bath, the pair keeps its quarters remarkably clean. Dana Holeckova, director of the zoo, soon plans to release Baby and Najin into the zoo's 27 -hectare nature preserve, known as the "Safari." Named for its environment and occupants, the Safari is home to nearly 200 animals with African roots, all inhabiting one common outdoor area. Buses shuttle visitors through the imitation Congo to observe the animals in a replica of their natural setting: rolling hills, dense forests and small ponds. "The animals are only kept inside the enclosures in the winter when it's minus-25 degrees," Holeckova said. "They live in the Safari the rest of the year." Mother care But for now, mother and daughter seem content in their enclosure. Najin, the new mother, was still recovering a week after giving birth. And for Baby, the cage doesn't offer any unwelcome distractions from her mother's breasts - about the only thing she seems interested in for the time being. In the course of an hour, she only parted from the milk bar once, taking a few shuffling steps to check out her human admirers. Baby looks soft and smooth - strangely cuddly for a creature that will one day be able to skewer a man. As yet, she lacks her mother's tough, leathery hide and the numerous folds, creases and cracks that come with age. Nor does she bear the twin horns that curve up from her mother's nose. But Baby's big, black eyes are oversized compared to her mother's, which appear to be mere dots on the sprawling landscape of her frame. Najin lies on her side and lets out a tremendous gust of breath. It sounds like the snort of a horse, magnified 20 times. She hoists and shifts one of her massive hind legs to allow the calf access to her tender underbelly.

The infant crawls across massive folds of flesh to reach her goal; it looks like no easy task for both parties. But Baby wags her tail with delight when she finally hits the mark, and her high-pitched squeals subside. With luck, she'll be on the giving end of the bargain some day, bringing her species another step closer to survival.

Craig Robinson may be reached at GO SAFARI s The Dvir Kralove zoo and Safari is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets cost 95 Kc (dollar 2.50) for adults, 60 Kc for students, pensioners and kids younger than 15. s Buses leave for Dvir Kralove several time daily from Prague's Florenc station. The trip takes about two-and-a-half hours.



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