A 38-year-old northern white rhino born in south Sudan ate African grasses for the first time in three decades Monday, the first full day on the continent for the world's last four northern white rhinos capable of breeding.
The rhinos' handlers and park officials hope the rhinos will bear young in their natural habitat and save their subspecies. But the four haven't reproduced in years, and a U.S. rhino expert said he believes the effort is futile — suggesting that the northern white rhino is already effectively extinct.
The four rhinos landed in Kenya on Sunday after flying in from a zoo in the Czech Republic. They were transported in wooden crates that read "Last Chance to Survive." Only eight northern whites are believed to remain.
"It makes no sense to move them at this point in time. It's way too little, too late," said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which has two northern whites. "That's based on a lot of knowledge, a lot of husbandry and certainly a lot of reproductive background."
As plans were made to move the rhinos, Rieches said he shared his opinions with officials at the Dvur Kralove Zoo and Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the game park where the four rhinos now reside.
The northern white rhino is the most highly endangered mega-vertebrate on earth. Risking the few that are left, even though they are not reproducing, while taking funding from other endangered rhinos was a bad idea, said Rieches, who sits on the board of the International Rhino Foundation.
'Rhino whisperer' backs transfer
Rhino handlers and park officials in Kenya dismissed Rieches' view, saying that even if chances of success are low, they have to try.
"I'd say of course there's a chance. What was the option? That they stay in the zoo and not breed?" said Berry White, a woman known as the "rhino whisperer" who helped prep the mammals for their move. "Yes, of course a lot of money was spent (moving the rhinos), but people wanted to spend money on this project."
White said female rhinos can breed until they are 30. The two females moved to Kenya are 9 and 20 years old. Animal experts say the northern whites haven't bred in zoos because they form sibling relationships with the opposite sex.
"The girls have a lot of years left in them. One has bred already. Yes, some people would say it's a longshot but not necessarily. ... Let's hope in the next five years there's one or two calves, some buildup," White said.
Rob Brett, the director of Fauna and Flora International, which helped arrange and finance the rhinos' move, said the money donated for the project — from the vice chairman of Goldman Sachs in Australia — was not transferable, though Brett said if it had been his money he would have spent it to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe.
The donor, Alastair Lucas, said he became involved with the northern white rhino project earlier this year after visiting Uganda and being told parks there no longer have rhinos. He declined to say how much he donated or the cost of moving the animals.
"It just seemed to me extraordinary that no one was picking this up and doing something," Lucas told The Associated Press on Sunday as he watched the rhinos unloaded into large pens. "It seemed to me to be such an important project.
"From where I stand, in 20 years they die out. It seems to me better to give them one last chance," Lucas said.
'Inevitable' breeding with southern whites
Even if the two female northern whites do successfully breed, they may not produce a pure genetic offspring. Brett said that breeding with southern whites was "inevitable," and that the goal simply was to pass on as many northern genes as possible. Northern whites are resistant to the tsetse fly and can survive where the fly lives; southern whites cannot.
The last northern white calf born was in 2000. The male and female in San Diego have never mated and there is no chance they can reproduce, Rieches said.
Rhinos operate on a three-year reproductive cycle and when they get out of sync, reproductive pathology and tumors begin, Rieches said.
"They feel that by locating them in another environment, they might start cycling again. That's a gamble at best. If you add in the reproductive pathology, I think you might get better odds in Las Vegas," Rieches said.
No officials at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy would disclose any financial figures behind the rhinos' arrival and upkeep, though Rieches said officials planned to spend $90,000 a year for security. Officials at Ol Pejeta said their security precautions are among the best in the world.
Rhino horns sell for more than gold on a per-weight basis, and have been the reason for a huge poaching problems against the species.
Noah Wekesa, Kenya's minister of forestry and wildlife, said during the rhinos' arrival on Sunday that Kenya has had "an issue" with poaching. In 1973, he said, Kenya had 20,000 black rhinos. By 1989 there were only 285. Today, the population is up again, with 609 black rhinos in Kenya. There are about 336 southern white rhinos, too.
The longevity record for a northern white rhino is 44 years and 10 months, Rieches said.
The oldest of the four rhinos now in Kenya, 38-year-old Sudan, is the only one of the four born in Africa. The other three were born in captivity. The rhinos will remain penned in the Kenyan park as they acclimate to the climate and vegetation. They will be given more room to roam in coming weeks and eventually released to the entire park.
"They're doing great," White said Monday morning outside of Sudan's pen, which had a patch of African grass growing in the middle of it. "He's grazing now. He's grazing for the first time in 33 years."