I’m Mark Kamhout, curator of mammals at Lincoln Park Zoo. Today’s Endangered Species Day seems like a natural time to reflect on the many threatened species of animals around the world.
I have the honor of working with many species that are endangered, and it feels good to be part of efforts to conserve them both here in Chicago and in the wild. One of the most high-profile species at Lincoln Park Zoo also happens also to be one of the most endangered: the black rhino.
I’ve always been very fond of black rhinos, having the pleasure of taking care of them as a zookeeper for many years and later doing my master’s thesis on them. These magnificent animals are found in parts of central, eastern and southern Africa and weigh between 2,500–3,000 pounds as adults. Despite their large, size black rhinos are actually quite agile and can run up to 30 miles per hour over short distances. They’re solitary animals and browsers, meaning they prefer to feed on leafy vegetation rather than the largely grass-based diet preferred by other hoofstock.
The most notable aspect of black rhinos, of course, is their large horns, which can measure over a foot long. Although they’re made of the same material as our fingernails (keratin) they are rock hard. The horns are used in sparring matches between males and act as a great defense against predators such as lions and hyenas. These horns, combined with the rhinos’ immense size and occasional short temper, make them a very formidable species.
Unfortunately these very attributes, particularly the large horns, have made the black rhino a major target for poachers. This is mainly due to the misconception in some cultures that the horns provide medicinal value. Black rhinos were nearly driven extinct by the early 1990s with their population dropping from around 65,000 to about 2,000 animals, mainly due to poaching.
With help from conservationists, the black rhino population has slowly increased, mainly in protected national parks. But a recent increase in rhino poaching across almost all of African’s National Parks further demonstrates the need for strong conservation efforts. Recent surveys show about 4,100 individuals—and because they are slow breeders, it’s important to understand the factors that naturally limit their reproduction.
Lincoln Park Zoo is doing its part to help black rhinos here in Chicago and in the wild. We currently have three black rhinos: Maku (pictured above), our older male; Ricko, our teenage male and a young female named Kapuki. (There are now four rhinos at the zoo, with baby King being born in 2013.) Each has their own distinct personality, which adds to the fun of taking care of them. Maku, being the veteran, is a bit more assertive but still maintains a cordial side once he gets to know you. Ricko, the teenager, tends to be very playful and engaging and loves to learn in his training sessions. Kapuki can be a little shy but has certainly gained more confidence over the last several years and has grown into a beautiful female black rhino.
One of the ways Lincoln Park Zoo advances black rhino conservation is working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) through the Black Rhinoceros Species Survival Plans® (SSP). These shared management plans, which typically focus on threatened or endangered species, also significantly contribute to field conservation efforts, species recovery, veterinary care for wildlife disease issues, establishment of assurance populations and many other species-focused conservation. We currently have a breeding recommendation from the SSP for Maku and Kapuki, and we have seen some promising interactions between them. (Update: Kapuki gave birth to a baby rhino, King, in September 2013.)
Another way the zoo supports black rhino conservation is through the work of Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., director of the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology. She’s assisting the recovery of endangered black rhinos in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park. Dr. Santymire uses non-invasive field techniques—the collection of fecal samples—to monitor hormone concentrations and the presence of parasites.
Sample collection is made possible by remote digital cameras that track rhino movement and habitat usage. This hormone and parasite data will ultimately be combined with data on ecology, predation, competition and tourism. The resulting information will help scientists better manage and conserve this amazing endangered species.
Dr. Rachel actually perfected her techniques by using our rhinos as a model. That means the zoo’s rhinos are helping with wild rhino conservation work, which is really outstanding.
Even with the conservation focus, there’s plenty of time for day-to-day care—and fun. Our dedicated keeper staff have daily training sessions with the rhinos, which help us provide them the best of care. One of the more enjoyable aspects of my job is participating in these sessions. Keeper staff also provides some durable enrichment for these hefty pachyderms. It is quite a sight to see Maku effortless toss around a 200-pound boomer ball.
Well, it’s time to help in a training session with another endangered species, the pygmy hippopotamuses. As we celebrate Endangered Species Day, let’s keep in mind all these amazing animal species that exist here and across the word and do our best to conserve and protect them.
Hope we see you at the zoo soon!
Curator of Mammals