Race to rescue rhinos

The northern white rhino is nearly extinct, with just eight known to exist, but a rescue operation that included airlifting four from a Czech zoo to Kenya, is underway.

"Fatu," one of only eight northern white rhinos known to exist in the world, rests in her cage at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic on Dec. 17. Three days later she and three others were shipped to Kenya for what conservationists hope will be the start of recovery for one of the world's most endangered large mammals.

The four were taken to the Communist-era zoo in the 1960s in a bid to create an African safari park. The relatively colder climate meant the animals spent most of their lives in small concrete cells. Back then, no one ever expected these would be some of the last living northern whites on the planet. Ami Vitale / for
Czech zookeepers on Dec. 19 prepare the crates to move the four rhinos -- two males and two females, neither of which has reproduced in two decades. "Moving them now is a last bid effort to save them and their gene pool from total extinction," said Dr. Rob Brett of Fauna & Flora International, the lead conservation group behind the operation. Ami Vitale / for
Airlifted in crates, the four rhinos arrive in Nairobi, Kenya, on Dec. 20. Conservationists hope that providing the four with a natural habitat will significantly increase their chances of breeding. To date, captive zoo breeding of northern whites has had limited success, with breeding only occurring at Dvur Kralove. The last calf was born in 2000. Ami Vitale / for
The crated rhinos are offloaded in Nairobi, Kenya. They were then driven about 180 miles to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya.

”If we are successful, the preservation of their unique locally adapted genetic traits may allow their natural range to be re-stocked in the coming years," said Richard Vigne, the conservancy's chief executive officer. Ami Vitale / for
Pens with outdoor areas have been set up at the conservancy for the new white rhinos. They will remain penned as they get used to the climate and vegetation, and gradually be given more room to roam. Eventually, they will be allowed to roam the entire park.

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is protected by armed Kenya Wildlife Service rangers. The rangers protect the wildlife, which includes a growing black rhino population, from poachers going after rhino horns. Some of the rhino horns were trimmed to prevent injury during transport and to make them less desireable to poachers. Ami Vitale / for
Mohammed Doyo, the head keeper of the rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy,anxiously looks over the fence as "Sudan" is unloaded from his long journey Dec. 20. The journey was filled with risks to get them back to Africa and everyone involved with the move was tense but excited. Ami Vitale / for
The new arrivals at the conservancy immediately attracted visitors on Dec. 20.

Some visitors were probably wondering why "white" rhinos when they're gray. The name comes from a misinterpretation of the Dutch "wijde" (wide in English), which was used to describe their wide mouths, an adaptation that helps them graze on grass. Black rhinos, on the other hand, have pointed mouths, which are adapted for browsing on leaves, shoots and branches. Ami Vitale / for
"Sudan," one of the new arrivals, smells the ground for the first time at her new pen on Dec. 20. Rhinos can live up to 40 years in the wild and can weigh upwards of 5,000 pounds.

The northern white is a subspecies of the white rhino along with the southern white, which lives across southern Africa. The whites closest relatives are black rhinos, which also live in Africa. Asia has three rhino species: the Sumatran, Indian and Javan rhinos. Ami Vitale / for
"Suni," one of the new northern whites, is cooled down with water on Dec. 20. The program hopes to some day reintroduce the subspecies not only in Kenya's wild but back to southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.

"The long-term aim of the translocation is to establish a viable breeding group of locally adapted white rhinos for reintroduction back into secure areas of their original range in eastern Africa," Flora & Fauna International said in a statement. "The time frame of such a reintroduction could well be in the region of 20 years or more." Ami Vitale / for