Researchers brought them to the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research specifically to help save their close cousin, the northern white rhino.
Only three of those animals are left alive, and none are capable of breeding.
“They’re animals that have been here for millions of years. And we’re on the verge of seeing them disappear. After all of that longevity, we’re the reason they are starting to disappear,” Metzler said.
Poaching snuffed out the wild population of northern white rhinos and age is taking its toll on the survivors in captivity.
“We’re learning about training. We’re learning about techniques for the reproductive work that we need to do with them. We’re learning things to improve their health and well-being through the veterinarian team,” Metzler said.
Rhinos have already transformed since their arrival
An off-exhibit area in the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center gives the six females room to roam and trainers up-close access. Keeper Marco Zeno took full advantage of the area encouraging the largest rhino, Amani, to come close.
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“Give me your nose,” Zeno said.
The animal lumbers over to the trainer, enticed by the friendly words and a bucket of food treats.
“It’s remarkable that these animals that were essentially wild when they came in and after just about three months, we’re hand feeding and being really calm around people and have no reason to be afraid,” Zeno said.
Amani is the first of the six females to be inseminated artificially. If it works, researchers are taking a major step toward saving the northern white rhino species.
On this day, Zeno urged Amani to stand still while another keeper simulated a shot. This basic behavior gets the animals ready for the real thing.
Ultrasound gives researchers an unprecedented view
Livia stands in the close-quarter chute of an examination area. A steady diet of snacks from keeper Jill Van Kempen keep the animal calm while researchers gather critical information.
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The doctor manipulates the ultrasound wand on the outside of the belly. This wand is encased in plastic piping and it goes inside the animal.
“We have two sets of females based on priorities. She (Livia) is once a week. And this is just to get baseline data. And then our other set of females get looked at, at least twice a week,” Pennington said.
The idea is to regularly check in on the animal’s reproductive organs.
“We look at the ovaries. And we look at the structures on the ovaries. And the structures we’re looking for are the follicles, which is the structure that holds the egg.”
Durrant is, in essence, writing the book on the rhino’s reproductive cycle because this research does not happen anywhere else in the world.
There is hope that what researchers learn will allow for an unprecedented successful artificial insemination with sperm from a southern white rhino.
As the researchers strain to get the information they need, Livia calmly munches on treats. There is no sedation.
20 minutes after the exam started, the procedure is over and the animal heads back to its barn.