ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 12

Hello rhinos, goodbye jumbos

From discussions that began in 2005, to the actual flight from Japan, to the first traumatic days in Sri Lanka, Malaka Rodrigo traces the untold story behind the new and rare residents of the Dehiwala Zoo

A new exhibit at the Zoo always makes news and when they happen to be of a rare species, it is even more exciting for animal lovers. Arriving at the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens last month were a pair of black rhinos, now listed as a critically endangered species. If the process of getting them here all the way from Japan was a laborious one, settling them into their new environment proved quite a challenge for Zoo administrators.

Anula, the female rhino at the zoo

Black rhino numbers have diminished rapidly over the last century. It was estimated that there were 65,000 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) in the African wilderness in the 1970s, but poaching has reduced their population to 3600. A larger percentage of these rare animals live in captivity and the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens has been trying its best to get one of these majestic animals after the death of its sole rhino about six years ago.

Zoo administrators were tipped off about an extra rhino in a zoo in Japan and Deputy Director of the Dehiwela Zoo Dhammika Malsinghe lost no time in writing to the Nagoya Higashiyama Zoo initiating the long and arduous process of animal exchange.

Discussions began in July, 2005. The Nagoya Higashiyama Zoo was interested in exchanging a couple of rhinos for two Asian elephants. Luckily, the Pinnawala elephant orphanage which was operating under the supervision of the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens had two baby elephants. The female, Anula had been born in 2001 and the younger male elephant, Kosala in 2004. The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is also an endangered species and the zoo administrators had to undergo a rigorous process with approval having to be given by Cabinet. Finally, in February 2006, approval was granted.

Kosala, the male rhino in relaxed mood

Care has to be taken to verify that the animals shipped are disease-free and in a fit condition to travel. That certification in the case of the rhinos, had to come from the Animal Health Department of Japan. With the assurance given by the Nagoya Zoo, administrators finally received the green light to proceed.

As per the general procedure practised in animal exchange programmes, Sri Lanka had to bear the cost of sending the elephants. A cargo plane had to be chartered and the zoo had to pay a huge sum of money as air fare. Negotiations finally brought the freight charges to Singapore dollars 128,000. Accompanied by two mahouts and a veterinary surgeon, the elephants bade goodbye to Lankan soil in the early hours of July 27.

Rhinos on a plane

Meanwhile, the staff of the Japanese zoos were equally busy, preparing the rhinos for their long journey to Sri Lanka. They were loaded onto a flight from Japan on July 28. The male rhino which was born in 2002 is from the Kanazawa Zoological Gardens in Yokohama and the female born in 1999 is from the Hiroshima Asa Zoological Park.

The rhinos travelled in two separate iron crates. A zookeeper and a curator from Japan accompanied them to Sri Lanka. The much awaited flight reached Colombo around 5 in the morning of July 31. Airport officers helped expedite the paperwork and get the rhinos released speedily to the Zoo authorities.

Vet. surgeon about to shoot the medicine

Japanese officials had advised their local counterparts to transport the animals at night, but the zoo administrators were helpless due to airline timings. The rhinos had to make the journey from the airport to the zoo in the morning rush-hour traffic and in some places the police assisted them to clear the road. Water was sprayed throughout the journey to cool the animals and avoid heat exhaustion.

It was a gruelling journey with the rhinos having spent five days in transit. The crates used to transport them were deliberately made small to restrict their movements but they had suffered injuries to their facial area trying to break free. “They were under immense stress. The female started eating after two days, but the male was not responding and continued to be violent. He smashed part of the wall of the den and also destroyed an iron railing. When animals do not eat, it can lead to other problems like gastritis, constipation etc. so I injected steroids and vitamins that would stimulate its appetite,” Dr. Jagath Jayasekera, the veterinary surgeon looking after the rhinos said.

The team stayed on full alert for the first few days, even keeping vigil through the night observing the condition of the animals. Treatment had to be administered from a distance. A carbon dioxide pistol was used to inject the medicines to the animals. The metal syringe was filled with the correct dosage of medicine, then loaded to the pistol which operates using a compressed gas cartridge. Initially the male had aggressively responded to the sound of the gun, but has now gradually got used to it.

The two elephants with their mahouts in Japan

“The pistol is also used to inject tranquilizers to animals when veterinary surgeons cannot approach them. Those chemicals are so strong, that if we come into contact with it, it can affect us severely. Usually a human antidote accompanies the chemicals and the processing is strictly done in the presence of another veterinary surgeon,” Dr. Jayasekera said.

Much to their relief, the male rhino started eating after four days. At Nagano zoo, the rhinos were mainly fed on hay cubes, with their favourite food being oak leaves. In Sri Lanka they were given alternatives like jak leaves, bread pellets etc. The rhinos seem to be adapting very well and now prefer fresh leaves to hay. They have taken a liking to the local ‘Kos’ leaves and also enjoy apples. The Nutrition Section Department is assisting the veterinary surgeons in preparing this diet.

Zoo keepers also faced problems in bringing the animals together. The male and female were not from the same zoo and so were strangers to each other. Initially they were not put together fearing a confrontation, but kept in adjoining compounds so they could sense each other. Then they were allowed to see each other and now do not seem aggressive.

The rhinos have been renamed Kosala and Anula after the two Lankan elephants who were sent to Japan, Nagoya Zoo preferring to give the elephants Japanese names. Initially visitors were not allowed near the rhino den, but the path is now open and they can see these magnificent rhinos in their enclosure located near the giraffe and camel pens, slowly adapting to life in their new home.

Rhinos lived in Sri Lanka
Fossilized rhino teeth at the museum

Thousands of years ago, ancestors of the rhino are said to have roamed in Sri Lanka. But over a lengthy period of time, they became extinct paving the way for other more adaptive species. The fossilized bones belonging to a species of rhinoceros were found near Ratnapura by famous archaeologist Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala.

The remains are believed to date back to the Upper Pleistocene era which is dated to around 80,000 years ago. According to Dr. Deraniyagala’s research the fossils belonged to two specimens. The older, less developed one was named the Rhinoceros sinhaleyus, which has squarer and lower teeth than the more rectangular-toothed Rhinoceros Kagavena. The former became extinct earlier, in Dr. Deraniyagala’s view.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.