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SOS Rhino : In the News : Czechs offer a glimmer of hope for threatened rhinoceros

Czechs offer a glimmer of hope for threatened rhinoceros
November 10, 2004

DVUR KRALOVE, Czech Republic (AFP) Nov 10, 2004
Far from its native Africa the last hope of saving the endangered northern white rhinoceros species from extinction lies in the heart of central Europe.

Decimated by poachers, the northern white rhinoceros is one of the planet's most-endangered species with just 40 known animals at most surviving today.

A glimmer of hope for the animal lies at Dvur Kralove zoo in the Czech Republic, one of only three places worldwide where the rhinoceros now live in captivity.

The zoo, 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Prague, home to seven of the imposing species, is the only place in the world where they have managed to breed the species in captivity.

It is the white rhinoceros's horn that makes it a target for poachers, a horn which some Asians believe carries medicinal and aphrodisiac powers.

That's largely why the number of the species, which originates from central and eastern Africa, has shrunk from 2,250 in 1960 to as low as 13 in 1984.

Zoo staff admit their challenge is not an easy one.

"But we are not throwing in the towel," said Kristina Tomasova, European co-ordinator for the European rhinoceros breeding programme, energetically, referring to the zoo's four females Nesari, Nabire, Najin and Fatu and three males named Sudan, Saut and Suni.

The species -- completely grey despite its name -- probably owes its name to a translation slip. The British wrongly translated "wijd lip" from the Boers language, South Africa's Dutch-origin tongue, as "white".

Three other white rhinoceros live at the Wild Animal Park in San Diego in the US and the rest at the Garamba national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, near the border with Sudan, a region shaken by bloody civil war.

At the last count in 2000 there were 30 of the animals at Garamba, but Tomasova said "No one knows exactly how many animals there are in reality today.

"Half of these rhinoceros were poached in Garamba in July 2003, according to the last available information. The situation at Garamba is critical, poachers are gaining from the civil war," she added.

"There were young females and males which could have reproduced but it appears that they are done for now," said Tomasova.

Four white rhinoceros have already been born in Dvur Kralove, the last of which was the female Fatu, born June 29, 2000.

The birth of Fatu, whose name meaning 'Goddess of eternal life" in Massai language was chosen by Czech public radio listeners after the birth was broadcast live on the Internet.

"Fatu's mother is the only female of the group who still has a chance of becoming pregnant. But four years have passed and still nothing," said Jan Zdarek, one of the rhinoceros keepers at Dvur Kralove.

It was Zdarek who four years ago helped Najin to bring Fatu into the world.

"Najin was the first born, it was a little difficult," he recalled of the first birth of this sub-species at Dvur Kralove after 11 years.

"Nesari is already 32 and has never given birth. There are not many possibilities," said Zdarek.

Nabire, 21, is in a fragile state of health and the youngest female Fatu has not yet reached reproductive age.

Still, staff at Dvur Kralove are not giving up hope.

"The whole world says the situation is critical, but there have been other threatened species which were able to be saved," said Jan Zdarek.

"There is always hope, above all we should not be discouraged. We cannot work, thinking that it will all be for nothing," insisted Tomasova.

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