GREAT PLAINS, S.D. (AP) - Take one step inside the Rare Rhinos of Africa exhibit at the Great Plains Zoo, and immediately you forget how old you are. Standing before you is a nearly 2,500-pound animal not indigenous to South Dakota, the United States or even North America.
It’s not every day you get to see an Eastern black rhino, let alone twice in two weeks, all while working.
Imara, as she’s called, has been at the zoo since 1999. She’s slowly munching on some hay as our group passes the sliding glass doors into the exhibit.
The zookeeper opens a side door that leads down to the pen. Imara forgets all about the hay and slowly heads toward the loose bars of the fence. She knows the zookeeper has something much better than hay: fresh vegetables.
While she plays a major part in this story, it’s the quiet little guy next to her that was the catalyst for it all.
In September, Imara gave birth to her third rhino calf. At the time, the calf was just one of 57 Eastern black rhinos in zoos across North America, a species that has only 740 left in the wild.
Over the course of our time at the exhibit, we were able to get an up-close look at the pair. The calf honestly reminds you of a clumsy puppy, constantly moving, darting around, all the curiosity in the world.
He has no idea that in the wild his species is being hunted to extinction because the horn he eventually will grow is worth nearly $30,000. The horn is used for traditional medicinal purposes in Asia, but it has shown no medical value.
“Our fear is that if rhinos continue to be poached, be shot, three or four a day, all of the rhinos will be gone in the wild in our lifetime,” said Elizabeth Whaley, president and CEO of the Great Plains Zoo.
It’s tough to accept that as you watch him playfully rub his head back and forth on the bars, or be full of energy one minute and plop down on a bed of hay the next.
But it’s also a good reminder that while the calf is fun to look at, there’s also a complex conservation program at work behind the scenes of the zoo.
Imara and her male companion, Jubba, have produced two other offspring since they have been at the zoo, and they have in turn started their own families.
The first calf born to the pair, Kapuki, gave birth to a male rhino in 2013 at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. It was the first rhino born at that zoo in 24 years.
Imara and Jubba’s second calf, Kiano, just became a father Oct. 11 at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines.
If you are keeping track at home, that means the little calf at the Great Plains Zoo is already an uncle.
It’s this kind of family tree that personifies the conservation efforts at the zoo. Of the 139 species there, 24 are endangered.
“For a zoo our size to do that kind of endangered species and management is really aggressive, and we’re proud of that,” Whaley said.
For the past 25 years, the zoo has been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA. Of the more than 2,400 zoos in the United States, only 216 zoos are a part of the association, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/2f2CWNT ) reported.
To become a part of the AZA is no easy process. Once the organization has decided to apply, they go through an eight-month application process.
“By being accredited, it means that we meet these very high, very stringent standards for care,” Whaley said. “And it’s everything from animal care and how we do our veterinary work through how we support our institution to how we engage the public. They look at every single thing.”
If approved, the accreditation lasts for five years. However, to renew means the organization must through the entire process again.
It’s something that Rob Vernon, senior vice president of the AZA, said sets them apart from other accrediting organizations.
“The standards that they went through the first time are not going to be the same standards that they go through five years later,” Vernon said. “Our standards are continuously evolving and changing and adapting to modern geological practices.”
Because their standards are constantly evolving, the AZA has someone designated at each facility to keep up with the changes and the new standards that are implemented. By doing this it allows for a zoo to not only stay current with the standards, but also, so they aren’t caught off guard when they re-apply for accreditation.
In the AZA, the zoo is in the middle in terms of size, but their conservation efforts have not gone unnoticed by their peers.
“I think for a zoo of their size, their conservation efforts are very aggressive and the successes that they have are significant.” Vernon said.
The rhinos, along with the 23 other endangered animals in the zoo are part of Species Survival Plans. The plans are complex collaborations between the AZA network of facilities to maintain a healthy and genetically diverse animal populations across the Association.
Each plan is headed up by a coordinator who is an expert in the field. The coordinator works with a team of experts including trained population biologists and species experts from across the country.
For the rhinos, the program has been very successful, but they aren’t alone.
The Red Wolf is another species benefiting from the conservation efforts of the zoo.
Once considered extinct in the wild, the Red Wolf has since been reintroduced, but their numbers are extremely low. There’s an estimated 50 in the wild and 225 in zoos.
Those numbers grew in April when Ayasha, who was also born in the Great Plains Zoo, gave birth to a litter of three female pups.
Another family tree started because of the Great Plains Zoo and the AZA.
As you wind the paths of the zoo, going from exhibit to exhibit, past the towering giraffes, over the Big Sioux River to the penguins and stopping by the tigers and flamingos, it’s easy to forget each and every one of those species is endangered in some form or another.
The zoo’s hope is that while you and your family enjoy everything it has to offer, that you also get some knowledge out of the visit; to care and help protect them.
“If we want our kids to be able to see these amazing animals in person or hopefully even in the wild and rather than on an iPad or on the flat page of a book, we’re going to work to save these animals,” Whaley said.
Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com
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