This month, conservationists in the Czech Republic and Kenya launchedan audacious bid to save one of the world's rarest animals: thenorthern white rhinoceros. Four of the last eight known northern whitesin the world, two male and two female, were packed into wooden cratesand sent from a Czech zoo to Kenya, where scientists hope they will getdown to the business of breeding.
The rhinos arrived at Nairobi's main airport at 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 19. Hamish Currie prowled the tarmac directing trucks, tractors and a giant crane as the animals came off the 747.
"The trip went very well; they're all relaxed," said Currie, who directs the Back to Africa program, which helps return zoo animals to the wild. "But obviously we want to get them on the road as soon as possible and reduce their stress. So the trucks are waiting now and we're going to load two onto a truck with a crane, fasten them down and get out of here."
The rhinos were headed to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya to see if the climate and terrain will encourage them to breed.
Some rhino conservation groups refused to back the project because of its costs — well in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — and because they thought the trip might kill the animals.
It took three hours for a staff of dozens to put the crates onto two flatbed trucks for the 200-mile journey north.
'Their Last Chance'
The rhinos were sent to Kenya in a desperate effort to save their subspecies, which was hunted to extinction by poachers in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. No northern whites have been seen in the wild since 2005.
Unlike other rhinos, northern whites breed poorly in captivity, possibly because of their small zoo enclosures. These four will be released into a fenced-off, 1,000-acre slice of the Ol Pejeta reserve.
Dana Holeckova, the Czech zoo director who pushed for the rhinos' relocation, says black rhinos have been bred successfully in captivity, but white rhinos breed only seldom and nobody knows why.
"For the northern white, we have no time," she said. "And that is why this is the last chance for [them to] survive, the last chance for the normal breeding, the last chance for rhino love and rhino children."
Scientists have high hopes for the 9-year-old female rhino named Fatu, who is in perfect health.
When handlers opened her crate door at the reserve, Fatu panicked. She wheezed and snorted for her mother, who had already been offloaded. Jan Szarek, Fatu's keeper who flew in from the Czech Republic, coaxed her out with lullabies and a crust of brown bread.
Once in their new pens, the rhinos seemed calm. That's partly thanks to Berry White, a British rhino handler who helped get the animals used to their crates in the Czech Republic and came along for the journey. She's been dubbed the "Rhino Whisperer" for her way with the animals.
"They do love a lot of fuss and attention, like horses really," White says. "Rhinos respond well to love and being scratched, so the whole name of the game is to make them as chilled out as possible."
A rhino named Suni snuffled around his pen, munching hay and checking out the photographers on the other side of a wooden fence. The question now is whether the females of his own species will express the same interest in him.