A rhinoceros born and raised in San Diego is getting used to a new home in Tanzania. The eastern black rhino is one of about 740 of the critically endangered animals left alive, and he recently completed a 68-hour journey to Africa.
"That was quite the feat," said Beverly "Beezie" Burden who works at the African reserve managed by the Singita Grumeti Fund.
"It involved two trucks. Three different airplanes. Five countries. And I think something like 10,000 miles. So he came quite a long way, but he did it. And we did it. And it happened with a great amount of celebration when he landed here," Burden said.
Burden says the rhino is adapting to the local diet and he has already been released from a small indoor holding pen to a larger outdoor enclosure.
Eric, the product of a successful rhino breeding program that has resulted in more than 100 rhino births at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, will have to learn about the other animals living in the park, like elephants.
"We also have to monitor and figure out different diseases that we have in Tanzania that he wouldn't have been exposed to from ticks or tsetse flies, so all of that is being monitored. We expect for him to be in the smaller enclosure that he is in for several months and then he'll be released into a bigger one," Burden said.
A successful transition to living in Africa is the first part of the mission. Breeding is the second. Conservationists in Tanzania have already identified a female eastern black rhino and they hope the pair will be prolific and produce lots of offspring.
If the animal adjusts well, the rhino will get access to a larger area in the park. Eventually, keepers hope to let Eric have the run of the reserve, but that will happen under close supervision because he needs to acclimate to living on his own.
Steve Metzler is the curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. He explained that Eric's home in San Diego was not that different from where he was moved to in Tanzania. "He's not a typical zoo rhino," Metzler said. "He's been living with cape buffalo and with African antelope and African birds and so his life here [in San Diego] is actually pretty similar to what his life is going to be in Africa."
The Tanzania reserve is "very wild," Metzler said, but it is also protected with the rhino under constant observation. "So they'll be watching him. They'll be watching his body condition. They'll be watching to see how often he's visiting the watering hole. They'll be watching to see if he's eating plants, what plants he is eating," Metzler said.
Eric also won't be the biggest kid on the block anymore. The rhino will have to interact with elephants and other animals, and keepers want to make sure he is safe from the biggest threat his species faces — man.
"Poaching, of course, is always a concern for rhinos in Africa. That's why we've already been over there. We've checked out their plans. They have an amazing anti-poaching unit, great surveillance, and we know that that's a secure location," Metzler said.
One reason Eric was a prime candidate for relocation is because his parents were prolific breeders at the Safari Park. Because the rhino's genes are over-represented in the captive population in the U.S., the agency that tracks genetic diversity would not recommend him for breeding in North America.
But his gene line doesn't exist in Tanzania and Eric could be a key part of an effort to reintroduce endangered black rhinos to the Serengeti.
A journey in the planning stages for months
In early September, Senior Keeper Sandy Craig at the Safari Park unlocked the door to a livestock barn tucked in the southern corner of the African Swamp exhibit. Craig pushed against a heavy gate and led fellow keeper Mike Veale to the small yard in the back of the complex known as a boma.
Veale carried a washbasin-sized plastic tub full of apples and carrots, treats for Eric.
"What's up big guy?" Craig asked as she walked slowly toward the big metal posts that separate the keepers from the large animal.
"Hey, who's my favorite rhino?" Craig asked in a soft soothing voice.
The 8-year-old bull is a young adult full of life and energy. Craig and Veale never get in the same enclosure with the rhino.
It is important to understand what the rhino is telling them, said Craig. Certain cues let her know the rhino doesn't mind her presence.
"I call it the quiet eyes where he's blinking slowly, not with big eyes looking around anxiously," Craig said. A relaxed rhino means keepers can work with him.
"Same with the ears, you kind of know when the ears are calm and not alert," Craig said.
Several months of this close-quarter training led to concrete results. The animal is relaxed enough with these two trainers that both can reach their arms past the metal posts to touch the rhino.
"Good boy Eric. Good boy," Veale said as he stroked the side of Eric's face and fed him a carrot.
"Target," Craig said.
The "target" command got Eric's attention. It means a treat is coming if he does what keepers want. Eric turned toward Craig and stuck his nose between two of those thick metal posts. There is a loud clang every time Eric's horn hits the metal.
Rhinos can't see well, but their sense of smell and hearing are both sharp. Eric knows who these keepers are and they have been able to teach him specific tasks. Keepers built that trust to help train Eric for the journey to Africa.
"It's all up to him," Veale said.
If the rhino cooperates, he has learned that he gets something back.
"We give him the extra good goodies, his favorite treats," Veale said.
Eric showed affection by offering keepers his upper lip. The pointy appendage looks rough but is softer than one might think. He pushed his nose through the posts for a sort of handshake.
"Normally we would just let him be a rhino out in the field and have fun doing his own thing, and we would work with him in a behavioral context — maybe just getting him familiar with us and asking him simple things," Veale said.
But for several weeks keepers restricted him to the boma and worked to build familiarity with the crate he will be moved in.
"We have several areas where we are working with him on a daily basis, multiple times to kind of reinforce that positive training," Veale said.
Keepers lure Eric into a narrow hallway which leads to the cage. In one training session recorded by the zoo, Eric got several handfuls of treats from keeper Sandy Craig once he poked his head through the bars of the cage.
All of this training was in preparation for the arduous transport to Tanzania, which took place in mid-September.
Eric is the first captive born and raised rhino the San Diego Zoo has released into the wild. It has been done with other animals, but the park's curator of mammals, Steve Metzler, said it is rare.