Escondido, California - A 19-day-old southern white rhino calf at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park was recently given the name Future in honor of a strong female leader and past president of a privately held family foundation, which has generously supported reproductive research since 1979 and the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, in recent years. Future is San Diego Zoo Global’s 100th southern white rhino born at the Safari Park, and she is only the second calf in North America to be born following hormone-induced ovulation and artificial insemination. Her name celebrates these monumental milestones—and the hope she brings to the future of rhino conservation worldwide.
Future ventured into the sunshine this morning (Monday, Dec. 9), enjoying a reprieve from the recent rains and exploring the mud puddles the rains left behind. While mom Amani enjoyed her breakfast, the little calf explored the maternity yard, running, splashing and rolling in the mud.
“Future’s new favorite thing is mud,” said Marco Zeno, senior keeper, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “She sees a puddle and she wants to roll in it!” Wallowing in mud is a natural behavior for rhinos. They coat themselves with a thick layer of mud that helps act as a sunscreen and bug repellent, and helps to keep them cool. ”Future is not only exhibiting natural rhino behavior, she appears to be having a ton of fun doing it.”
Amani was artificially inseminated with semen from southern white rhino J Gregory on July 12, 2018, following hormone-induced ovulation. Collecting and using chilled semen allows for additional generic diversity without having to move animals from facility to facility. Amani gave birth to her 132-pound calf in the early hours of Nov. 21. White rhino gestation is estimated to be 485 days—but as with any baby delivery, this can differ. Amani carried her calf for 498 days. Mom and baby are doing extremely well—and baby is eating well, too. At 19 days of age, she weighs 193 pounds.
The artificial insemination and successful birth of the rhino calf represents a critical step in the organization’s ongoing work to develop the scientific knowledge required to genetically recover the northern white rhino, a distant subspecies of the southern white rhino. Only two northern white rhinos currently remain on Earth and, unfortunately, both are female.
San Diego Zoo Global has a history of expertise with rhino species. With the birth of this calf, there have now been 100 southern white rhinos born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, in addition to births of 74 greater one-horned rhinos and 14 black rhinos at the Safari Park. The challenges associated with limited gene pools and severely reduced numbers facing Javan rhinos, Sumatran rhinos and northern white rhinos mean that some form of assisted reproduction may be their only hope for the future.
Amani is one of six female southern white rhinos that reside at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center. To increase genetic diversity and the number of reproductively fit individuals in North American zoos, these rhinos were relocated to the Safari Park from private reserves in South Africa in November 2015.
Five animal care specialists are dedicated to the full-time care of the six female rhinos. They spend each day building a relationship with and gaining the trust of the animals. The animals are trained, through positive reinforcement, to receive any needed medical procedures, as they could potentially serve as future surrogate mothers for a northern white rhino.
To reach the ultimate goal of successfully producing a northern white rhino, multiple steps must be accomplished. One of the first steps completed involved sequencing the genome of the northern white rhino to clarify the extent of genetic divergence from its closest relative, the southern white rhino. The analysis revealed that they are distinct subspecies. Another step requires conversion of cells preserved from 12 individual northern white rhinos in the Frozen Zoo® to stem cells that could develop into sperm and eggs—a process successfully begun in the laboratory of Jeanne Loring, Ph.D., of The Scripps Research Institute, with details of the process published in 2011.
Reproductive options include artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, working with southern white rhinos. When these techniques are perfected, the southern white rhinos would serve as surrogates for northern white rhino embryos. The reproductive system of rhinos is very complex, and there is still much to be learned. There are many challenges ahead, but researchers are optimistic that a northern white rhino calf could be born from these processes within 10 to 20 years. This work may be applied to other rhino species.
There are an estimated 18,000 southern white rhinos remaining in the wild. The southern white rhino is classified as Near Threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, due to poaching threats and illegal trafficking of rhino horn. Currently, a rhino dies every eight hours in South Africa as a result of poaching.
Amani and her calf will remain in their private habitat for a period of time to allow them to bond. The calf will eventually be introduced to the other rhinos living at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, including her potential playmate, 4-month-old Edward—the first calf born at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center and the first in North America conceived through artificial insemination.
On any given day, visitors to the Safari Park may be able to see one or more of the southern white rhinos living at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center from the Africa Tram. The public can help support San Diego Zoo Global’s rhino conservation efforts through the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy at EndExtinction.org/Future
As an international nonprofit organization, San Diego Zoo Global works to fight extinction through conservation efforts for plants and animals worldwide. With a history of leadership in species recovery and animal care, San Diego Zoo Global works with partners in science-based field programs on six continents, and maintains sanctuaries and public education facilities in many places. Inspiring a passion for nature is critical to saving species, and San Diego Zoo Global’s outreach efforts share the wonder of wildlife with millions of people every year. Current major conservation initiatives include fighting wildlife trafficking and the impacts of climate change on wildlife species; broad-spectrum species and habitat protection efforts in Kenya, in Peru and on islands worldwide; preventing extinction in our own backyard; and expanding efforts to bank critical genetic resources and apply them to the conservation of critically endangered species. To learn more, visit SanDiegoZooGlobal.org or connect with us on Facebook