Four rhinos relocate to Africa with single mission

OL PEJETA CONSERVANCY, Kenya Thu Jan 21, 2010 12:40pm EST

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OL PEJETA CONSERVANCY, Kenya (Reuters) - Resting under the cool of an acacia tree in Kenya, nine-year old Fatu seems perfectly at home in the hot and grassy enclosure that has been her dwelling for the last month.

The 1,800 kg (3,960 lb) female rhino is one of four northern white rhinos -- the only ones now in a position to breed -- sent to Kenya from a zoo in the Czech Republic with one sole purpose: to make babies.

Only eight of the endangered subspecies remain, the other four being also in captivity, say Ol Pejeta conservationists.

So the onus lies on the massive shoulders of Fatu, her 20-year old mother Najin, 38-year-old grandfather Sudan and another male Suni, 36, to save the race.

Having lived most of their lives in the Czech republic, the four will need time to adapt to their new surroundings at Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy that is now their home.

"Everyone of us wants one of those animals to be pregnant as quickly as possible but we've got to be realistic about it. We need to introduce them, we need to get them out in the right environment, the right space to start breeding," said Batian Craig, security manager at Ol Pejeta.

"If we can say that in a year from now that we have a pregnant female, that would be incredible."

But that is no easy task.

Opponents of the move say that the animals are at risk because they have spent all of their lives in very different conditions from those they are experiencing now in Africa.

The animals must be introduced to virtually everything, including electric fences and new food. In their Czech zoo, the four lived on a diet of carrots, brown bread, apples and hay, but in Kenya they must learn to graze in grassy enclosures.

They have to adapt to 26 degrees Celsius temperatures and being outdoors all the time compared with living in heated concrete enclosures in their previous home. The animals were loaded into their crates for Africa in minus 15 degree weather.

However, the strong African sun has been good. A skin condition afflicting Fatu has disappeared in the few weeks since their arrival around Christmas, says Dana Holechkova, director of the Dvur Kralove zoo that repatriated the animals.

LEARNING SWAHILI

The rhinos must learn a new language too. They only respond to Czech commands but the rangers in Kenya mostly speak Swahili.

Ol Pejeta warder Mohammed Doyo has learnt to call out "Pojd' honem" which means "come quickly," but the rhinos will also have to learn "kuja haraka," the same command in Swahili, he said.

Holechkova said the four were enjoying discovering their new home. "They look to me like they are more happy here," she said.

"They are having mud baths, eating growing grass, it's something they had never had before. That alone is a major achievement, bringing them through those steps. Next step is putting them in the wild and that will be the challenge, but the few changes we have seen are hugely positive."

The plan is to move the rhinos to more spacious enclosures to give them a sense of the wilderness, although they will remain within the protected area of the conservancy.

For the first time, the rhinos have trees on which to sharpen their horns, which were sawn down to stubs so they would not injure themselves in their crates on the long-haul flight.

The rhino's trip took 26 hours from Prague to Nairobi, cost 90,000 euros $127,800 (79,000 pounds) and the whole project will require another $600,000 over the next three years.

But conservationists say that is peanuts compared to what poachers earn from selling the prized horn that is used for aphrodisiacs in the Far East and dagger handles in Yemen.

The street value for a kilo of rhino horn is 220,000 shillings (1,800 pounds).

White rhinos are the largest land mammals after elephants and typically live in herds of up to 14 animals. Their numbers have slumped from about 500 in the 1970s mainly due to poaching.

The endangered white northern rhinos are native to Africa, north of the equator. Ol Pejeta has several southern white rhinos but they will not be allowed to mate with Fatu or Najin.

The Czech zoo first became home to the white rhinos in 1975 when Sudan and a female arrived from Sudan, aged two and three.

Zoologists encouraged the animals to breed but after initial success there has been only one birth in the past 10 years.

"These four animals are the last living chance to get this subspecies back," Craig said.

"That is massive and we have to give them the best opportunity. We don't want to rush it because rushing it will bring mistakes but if we ... let rhinos do what rhinos do best in the wild, I'm sure we're going to be successful."

(Writing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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