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Rhinos on a plane

Jennifer Collins
July 1, 2016

A zoo in the Czech Republic and a rhino sanctuary in Tanzania have worked together to fly a black rhino to the African country. There it will boost rhino populations as part of a breeding program.

Photo: A black rhino eating carrots and bread. Copyright: Jan Stejskal/ZOO Dvur Kralove
Image: Jan Stejskal/ZOO Dvur Kralove

After completing a mammoth 31-hour journey across continents, what would be the first thing you'd do? For Eliska, a female black rhino, it was trotting about her new Tanzanian home and tucking straight into her favorite food - carrot and bread.

Three-year-old Eliska on Monday became the latest such animal to be transported from ZOO Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic to the rhino sanctuary at Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. There she will join a breeding program along with one female and two males sent from the Czech zoo in 2009, in a bid to boost numbers of the critically endangered species.

"The rhinos that were transferred to Mkomazi from the ZOO Dvur Kralove in 2009 have been doing pretty well here. Female Deborah even gave birth to two calves," said Tony Fitzjohn, who runs the rhino sanctuary in Mkomazi, which is one of largest and most important protected ecosystems on Earth. "Eliska will definitely help us to strengthen one of the only three rhino populations in Tanzania."

The keepers hope she will be able to reproduce in the next one to two years.

Big operation

Photo: Men unload a black rhino from a DHL transport crate. Copyright: Jan Stejskal/ZOO Dvur Kralove
Logistics firm DHL provided their special Boeing for free to transport the black rhino. The public helped toward other costs via donationsImage: Jan Stejskal/ZOO Dvur Kralove

While black rhinos are smaller than white rhinos, adults can still reach 1.5 meters in height and weigh up to 1.4 tons. Add the fact that Eliska is a wild animal and you have a major logistical operation on your hands, says Andrea Jirousova, zoo spokeswoman. But she adds the black rhino's "friendly and cooperative" temperament made it easier.

"Her character is extraordinary," Jirousova told DW. "She was completely facilitating us [in] the process of training for her transport."

That training mainly included getting Eliska ready for the 3.2 meter shipping crate in which she would spend more than a day. To do so, keepers placed the crate in her enclosure so she would get used to its presence. Then they put feed inside so Eliska would learn to enter of her own accord and feel safe.

"This process has lasted for a few months. However, Eliska managed it without any problems," says Jirousova, adding that the animal was sedated a little for the journey in a dedicated Boeing B757 provided by DHL. Also on the airplane were a veterinary escort, an aircrew and several tons of feed.

Now that Eliska has arrived in Tanzania, she will be adapted to her new surroundings, firstly in a small enclosure and then in a large enclosure before she will join the other black rhinos.

Zoos conservation efforts

Photo: A DHL transport crate is loaded onto a truck having been unloaded from a plane. The plane is Standing in the Background. Copyright: Jan Stejskal/ZOO Dvur Kralove
Black rhinos are critically endangered. Just 5,000 are left in the wildImage: Jan Stejskal/ZOO Dvur Kralove

According to Jirousova, sending Eliska to Tanzania is part of the "function of modern zoos to return animals from captive back to the wild and help them to survive in their natural habitat."

"It is one of the ways to enhance the endangered wild animal populations and prevent the species from extinction," she added.

The zoo's reintroduction program includes transports of scimitar oryx in 1999 and addax in 2007 to Tunisia, roan antelopes to Swaziland in 2008 and four northern white rhinos to Kenya's Ol Pejeta reserve in 2009.