Southern White Rhinos at Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center at San Diego Zoo Safari Park Now May Be Seen by Visitors

Six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s new Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center were given access earlier today to an area of their habitat they had not explored before. A gate was opened to allow the rhinos to venture into the front yard of the Rescue Center—an area that is visible to Safari Park guests from the Africa Tram Safari.

“We are so pleased our Safari Park visitors now may be able to see these beautiful, important rhinos,” stated Jonnie Capiro, senior keeper, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “For the past three months, they have been in their off-exhibit yards while we have been working to build a rapport with the animals and ensure they are comfortable in their new environment. It’s exciting to see them checking out another area of their habitat this morning, with unfamiliar sights and sounds. It’s a very positive sign they are showing confidence and a good level of comfort their first day out.”

Mmmm, fresh grass!

Mmmm, fresh grass!

When keepers first opened the gate to the yard, Wallis, one of the youngest of the six rhinos, bravely entered first—closely followed by Amani, Livia, Helene, Nikita and Victoria. Wallis and Victoria immediately noticed the fresh grass, and all six rhinos began grazing before checking out the hilly areas, feeders and shade structures. It didn’t take long for the rhinos to exhibit playful behavior, chasing each other and running around the 2-acre habitat. Having already been conditioned to loud sounds and the sight of vehicles, the rhinos appeared to pay little attention to the Africa Tram Safari filled with Park guests as it passed by, allowing visitors to see the animals for the first time.

The female rhinos, ranging from 4 to 7 years of age, were relocated to the Safari Park from private reserves in South Africa in November 2015, as part of a collaborative conservation effort to save the critically endangered northern white rhino—and all rhino species—from extinction. Three keepers, Capiro, Weston Popichak and Dion Rice, are dedicated to the full-time care of the animals. The keepers spend their day building a relationship with and gaining the trust of the animals. The animals are being trained, through positive reinforcement, to receive any needed medical procedures, as they could potentially serve as future surrogate mothers for a northern white rhino.

Building a relationship of trust between keeper and rhino is vital to the animal's care.

Building a relationship of trust between keeper and rhino is vital to the animal’s care.

San Diego Zoo Global has been working for decades, along with other accredited zoos, to keep a sustainable population of rhinos safe under human care while working to protect them in sanctuaries in the wild. The Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center furthers this commitment and helps in establishing the Safari Park as a sanctuary to protect rhinos—at a time when an average of three rhinos are killed each day in the wild by poachers.

The Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, named in honor of benefactor and longtime animal advocate Nikita Kahn, is a 3.5-acre state-of-the-art animal facility dedicated to the conservation of white rhinos, with a focus on assisted reproductive techniques. The Center is located on the former site of the Park’s black rhino exhibit. The facility, still partially under construction, includes three large outdoor yards, two outdoor interior yards, one outdoor maternity yard, a temperature-controlled maternity barn, a training chute with a recessed scale to monitor individual weights, a training chute to facilitate reproductive efforts, bedroom stalls and a research center with necessary scientific tools. While the Rhino Rescue Center barn’s emphasis is on neonatal care, it also can be used to help geriatric animals and keep them comfortable in their advanced years.

Only three northern white rhinos remain in the world after the Nov. 22, 2015 death of Nola, a beloved, elderly 41-year-old northern white rhino at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The northern white rhino is the world’s most critically endangered rhino, and the three that remain reside at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

On any given day, visitors to the Safari Park may be able to see one or more of the southern white rhinos from the Africa Tram Safari, as their keepers continue their training sessions and rotate them from the back area to the Rhino Rescue Center exhibit yard.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Photo at top of page taken on Feb. 18, 2016 by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.