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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : November 2000 : Out of Africa: A generous donation to the Indianapolis Zoo

Out of Africa: A generous donation to the Indianapolis Zoo sets up a thrilling expedition to a South African game park to capture and transport white rhinos to America

By Myrta Pulliam
The Indianapolis Star
November 19, 2000

It was, in essence, a shopping trip in the most extreme of ways -- a mall the size of Massachusetts, carts the size of motor homes, a bargain only the most ardent of hunters could afford.

But this adventure was a safari to South Africa's Kruger National Park to search for white rhinos for the Indianapolis Zoo, which plans to open an exhibit and launch a conservation program for the threatened species.

Funded by zoo patrons, last month's hunt for the white rhino ( ceratotherium simum) resulted in five of the animals being captured at the South African game preserve. Three of the rhinos will take up residence in Indianapolis in 2003 when the zoo opens a rhinoceros exhibit where elephants now roam.

"This trip represents everything that is right and current with the zoo world today," said Jeffrey Bonner, president and chief executive officer of the zoo and one of 11 people from Indianapolis who accompanied Kruger's game-capture team on the trip. "This is pure science and completely exhilarating."

Indianapolis Zoo officials decided more than a year ago to pursue a rhino exhibit. The idea grew out of planning for a new $7.3 million elephant exhibit. Once the zoo's seven elephants are in their new home, the area they now occupy will be modified for the white rhinos.

Cynde Barnes of Indianapolis, a member of the zoo's board of directors, and her husband, John E. Barnes, are paying for the rhinos. They went along on the expedition to South Africa to find them.

Of the $250,000 raised for the rhino capture, $75,000 went to Kruger and another $75,000 will cover the cost of flying the animals from South Africa to the United States.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us," John Barnes said of their donation and the trip.

The Barneses and nine others from Indianapolis made the trip to pick out the zoo's newest residents. The trip marked the first time that representatives of a zoo had been allowed to watch as animals destined for their facility were selected and captured.

The excursion provided a rare glimpse inside Kruger's game preserve and how its curators select and capture specimen animals that will be shipped to zoos and parks -- and subsequently used in efforts to help save endangered species.

Others have examined the rhinos after a capture, but "we got an unbelievable experience -- just what you would see on National Geographic ," said Debbie Olson of the Indianapolis Zoo, who arranged the trip.

"I think, through this experience, we also opened the door for other institutions, as they found it was a pretty positive thing for all concerned."

Why does the zoo want rhinos?

For one thing, Bonner said, the animals will fit nicely into the zoo's current elephant exhibit once the elephants are relocated.

Also, he said, rhinos -- both black and white -- are in trouble and threatened by extinction. The Indianapolis Zoo's successful artificial insemination program for elephants -- it has resulted in two births -- could help cre ate a stable community of white rhinos. (Black rhinos are rarer and therefore unavailable at this time.)

"We hope we can do for rhinos what we did for elephants," Bonner said.

Kruger National Park stretches over 5 million acres on the northeastern edge of South Africa. One of the world's largest and oldest nature sanctuaries, the 102-year-old park is renowned as a well-managed preserve that focuses on research.

Kruger has an abundance of wildlife, and park officials have worked out an efficient system to capture, ship and sell rhinos -- factors that have caught the attention of zoos and game parks worldwide.

Dr. Douw Grobler, Kruger's chief veterinarian, estimates that some 600 rhinos have been captured and relocated in his 12 years at the park. Most are sold to other game parks in southern Africa, but some go to zoos around the world.

The collection assembled on this trip will consist of 10 rhinos -- the three for the Indianapolis Zoo; a male and two females for Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla.; and two females for a private reserve, Peace River Refuge, in Florida. To make sure they end up with enough animals for their clients, Kruger officials usually collect a few more rhinos than needed. Any extra animals will be relocated or sold.

Kruger sells its rhinos for several reasons, Grobler said. The park has a surplus of white rhinos now, so the program raises money for the preserve.

But, he said, generating funds is only part of the equation. Another goal is to ensure there's a safe and stable rhino population abroad -- particularly in U.S. zoos -- in case something happens to the now-healthy population in Kruger.

A healthy zoo population, he said, means an active breeding population -- something that could allow the species to survive a widespread disease or some other catastrophe in the wild that could drive white rhinos to extinction.

The capture

Although the relocation of elephants, particularly lone elephants, is a controversial practice no longer endorsed by U.S. zoos, rhino relocation has not stirred protest, primarily because the animals adapt so well to their new surroundings.

Grobler says that while the initial capture is probably traumatic, "white rhinos are very adaptable as long as they have good grass."

Kruger National Park's game-capture team makes it look easy -- taking just 20 minutes to spot a rhino by helicopter, dart it with an anesthetic cocktail and load it into a transportation crate.

The day starts early -- 3:30 a.m. -- for the capture team of a dozen or so people.

By sunrise, the team is in place. The helicopter arrives to meet the rest of the group's vehicles: two huge flatbed trucks equipped with hydraulic lifts and carrying three metal rhino crates, several other trucks and cars, tons of heavy equipment, huge chains -- and a lot of rope.

This day, Grobler, the head veterinarian, is in charge. He's in the back seat of the four-person helicopter. The spotters fly in a square pattern over an area where Grobler and the pilot, Fanie Jordaan, know they are likely to find rhinos.

On the ground, the vehicles line up and wait for the chopper to locate the appropriate rhinos. Indianapolis has requested a male and two females, ranging in age from 3 years to 5 years. Within about 20 minutes, the crew in the air spots the first female.

The helicopter hovers as Grobler prepares an anesthetic cocktail known as M99, a potent blend containing a morphine derivative and a tranquilizer, azaperone. The dosage must be appropriate for the size of the rhino, and Grobler has judged this one to be between 2,400 and 3,200 pounds.

Even 100 feet off the ground, the crew knows the rhino is in the right age range, judging from the size of its body, neck and horns.

Grobler inserts the syringe into a dart, which is loaded into a rifle with no scope -- a gun so simple it looks like a child's toy. He then slides open the helicopter door and shoots the rhino in the backside. He rarely misses.

As the dart strikes the rhino, the beast begins running. The chopper follows, working to keep the rhino pointed toward the road, where the ground crew waits.

After about 10 minutes, the drugged rhino slows down and eventually collapses. The helicopter, which seems capable of landing anywhere, lets Grobler off a few feet from the animal. The capture team arrives.

The rhino, out cold on the ground, is first blindfolded. Then a rope is attached to her horn.

Giant tug of war

As soon as the rhino's vital statistics are recorded and a metal crate is positioned in front of the animal, Grobler begins choreographing the people who will push the massive beast into the crate.

The animal is given a shot with a "partial antidote" to the anesthesia. She's still groggy. Grobler and two others wave electrified sticks -- cattle prods. (The veterinarian says he knows from personal experience that the sticks sting only a bit.) The high-tech prods help, but getting the animal upright and into the crate is mostly a matter of decidedly low-tech pushing and pulling.

Once the rhino is inside, the crate is lifted back on the flatbed, and the trucks and cars head for the road.

Then the process is repeated.

When it gets too hot -- often by 9 or 10 a.m. -- the operation stops for the day. The only casualty of this day: one dart, broken when it penetrated a rhino's hide.

After the rhinos are in their crates on the flatbed, they are driven to an acclimatization center in Kruger. Upon arrival, each crate is lifted and positioned so its door is aligned with the gate of a large pen made from huge tree posts. The crate door is raised.

Seeing the grassy pen, some rhinos amble out of their crates. A few run out. Others snort and try to push around the other rhinos. Before long, though, most of the animals are eating grass contentedly.

If a rhino doesn't eat in the first 14 days of captivity, it is released back into the wild. But about 90 percent of the animals adjust just fine, said Marius Kruger , manager of the acclimatization center. All of the rhinos collected last month are eating well.

In March or April, eight of the 10 rhinos now in the acclimatization center are expected to travel to the United States by air. To ease the adjustment, the veterinarians and zoo staff members who will accompany the rhinos on the plane will start feeding and watering them two or three weeks before the trip.

Until the Indianapolis Zoo's rhino exhibit is ready in a few years, the animals destined for the facility will stay at another, as-yet-undetermined U.S. location.

Only after the rhinos are ensconced in their new Indianapolis home will zoo officials truly conclude what was, in essence, a shopping trip in the most extreme of ways.

Myrta Pulliam is a member of the Indianapolis Zoo board and director of special projects for The Star. Contact her at (317) 444-8008 or via e-mail at

About this story

Staffers from The Indianapolis Star and WTHR (Channel 13) traveled to South Africa's Kruger National Park last month with a contingent from the Indianapolis Zoo.

The group's mission: to help capture three rhinoceroses that will reside in the zoo's first rhino exhibit, scheduled to open in 2003 in what is now the facility's elephant area.

Myrta Pulliam, The Star's director of special projects, produced most of the words and images that make up this special report.

WTHR news anchor John Stehr and photographer Steve Starnes, meanwhile, assembled a three-part series that details the difficult task of locating, capturing and acclimating the rhinos destined for the zoo. That series -- Out of Africa -- will air at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

At a glance: zoo's plans

The rhinos bound for the Indianapolis Zoo can thank the elephants for their new home. Here's why:

The zoo's elephants will be moving to larger digs -- an exhibit area built with $7.3 million that zoo officials have raised quietly in the past few months.

The fund-raising campaign encompasses nine projects, the largest of which is the new elephant exhibit. It also includes the conversion of the old elephant exhibit into a rhino area.

Construction has started on the new elephant area in the southwest corner of the zoo, near Washington Street and the administration building. That project will take more than a year to complete, so the elephants probably won't move until summer 2002.

Then the rhino-exhibit conversion would start. Plans call for that area to be done by early 2003 -- with the rhino exhibit opening to the public that summer.

Converting the elephant area to a rhino exhibit will cost about $200,000. Zoo visitors probably won't notice many of the changes.

The area's pond will be made shallower -- and therefore safer for rhinos, which don't swim as often or readily as elephants. In addition, the moat around the area will be made more substantial.

Many of the behind-the-scenes changes involve the barn where the rhinos will be kept when not outdoors. The elephant barn was designed for free contact, meaning the elephants and their handlers could be in the same area. The rhinos, in contrast, will be separated from their handlers. Zoo staffers will be able to reach the animals through special chutes.

Zoo officials also know they'll have to be flexible with the layout and structure of the rhinos' pens.

"We don't know enough about the role of competition between males and what makes them breed," explained Jeffrey Bonner, the zoo's president. "Males may need competition before they breed, or they may need to see one another but not be in the same pen, or they may need to be together, or may need not to see one another."

African rhinos

The two species, the black and the white, are similar in appearance. Here are some of their differences:


Weight: 4,000 to 6,000 pounds

Diet: Grazers or (eat grasses) "lawnmowers"

Characteristic: Wide, square chin

Population: 11,170

Conservation status: Threatened


Weight: 2,000 to 3,000 pounds

Diet: Browsers (eat leaves, fruits, flowers)

Characteristic: Pointed upper lip

Population: 2,940

Conservation status: Endangered

Rhino facts

All species of rhinos are in jeopardy, mostly due to poaching.

There are also three Asian species: the Indian rhino, the Javan rhino and the Sumatran rhino.

African rhinos have two large horns, they are similar in color, have poor eyesight and good senses of smell and hearing.

African rhinos have a 30- to 40-year life span.

Rhino horns are made of keratin, similar to fingernails or hooves, which regrows if broken off.

Rhinos are poached for their horns, which are used to make medicine in Asian countries and dagger handles in Arab countries.



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