The duo aren’t merely the namesake and star attraction at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens’ new Rhino Savanna, which opened to the public last November. Jaali and Nia were matched by an Association of Zoos and Aquariums initiative that works to ensure genetic sustainability and diversity among animal populations. Together, they represent the hope of strengthening and educating the public about the critically endangered species.
“The benefit of having animal populations like black rhino in zoos is to inspire the next generation to care about nature,” Living Desert conservation director James Danoff-Burg says. “Without those animals, it’s less likely people will be engaged.”
Since The Living Desert was founded more than 50 years ago, conservation has been an important part of the zoo’s mission. It has worked to save species threatened with extinction like the Mexican wolf, peninsular pronghorn, and desert pupfish. Now, with the opening of a four-acre habitat for Jaali and Nia, the institution has added African black rhino to its conservation list.
“The benefit of having animal populations like black rhino in zoos is to inspire the next generation to care about nature.”
When designing the sprawling area opposite the wildly popular giraffe habitat, procreation was paramount. The Living Desert staff spent two years formulating the space and almost another two years went into constructing the environment mimicking an African landscape with majestic rolling hills, thatched structures, and intricate rock formations.
“It’s all about space,” Living Desert animal care director RoxAnna Breitigan says of an atmosphere that would promote mating between the black rhinos. “You need space for the female to get away from the male if she’s not interested or space for the male if the female says, ‘It’s my time. You better get busy.’”
At ages 2 and 3, Jaali and Nia don’t have sex on the brain. Yet. Over the next few years, the zookeepers will closely watch and care for the horned herbivores as they grow up and accustom to their Coachella Valley savanna — and each other.
“In the wild, rhino have their own territory, but they’ll also move from territory to territory,” explains Breitigan, who served as a chaperone on the team that traveled cross country with Jaali and Nia, monitoring the animals inside separate crates with video surveillance and regular physical checks. “Hopefully, when they’re amorous in a few years, they’ll be in that groove.”
Despite their status as a solitary species, black rhinos thrive among other creatures in Africa, a fact that is uniquely replicated in The Living Desert’s Rhino Savanna. Jaali and Nia share their new home with 11 other species, including banded and dwarf mongoose, pink-backed and great white pelican, and the hooved klipspringer, springbok, and waterbuck.
“It’s a very different approach having these species together,” Breitigan says. “At The Living Desert, we’re privileged to think outside the box and consider how the zoo of the future will look. Most zoos in North America would not put other species with black rhino. They’re usually by themselves because they’ve gotten a bad rap over the years. They’re mostly solitary, but they don’t live all by themselves in the wild.”
The launch of the Rhino Savanna, overseen by a new animal care curator and five keepers, was a different proposition than Australian Adventures, an enclosed habitat that opened at The Living Desert in 2020 and features wallabies hopping amidst guests. While the zoo staff wanted to craft an equally immersive multi-species environment, there were many more considerations when it came to Jaali and Nia, who at about 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, respectively, rank as the zoo’s largest residents.
“Typically, when you design a home, you have one client, and it’s usually the wife,” jokes Living Desert CEO Allen Monroe. “In this case, we had three: the animals, guests, and staff. We had to maximize and balance what we were building to meet the needs of all three clients.”
Located just inside The Living Desert’s main entrance, the savanna theatrically opens with a rocky arch and path simulating a dry riverbed in Africa. Inside, Monroe and his team didn’t want the area to go to waste, creating an ant farm-like wall where visitors can peer at hundreds of naked mole rats in a series of interconnected transparent burrows.
“We wanted to put guests inside and have that sensation of feeling like they’re actually on a savanna instead just creating a box where they can only look in from one side.”
“We have all of these wonderful animals above ground, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we use this space to tell the stories of the animals underground?’” Monroe recalls. “We devised all these tunnels to house the largest naked mole rat colony in North America. They live their entire lives underground and have a very interesting hierarchy like termites or bees.”
Past the arch, the habitat is divided by a raised visitor pathway into two zones: an undulating waterhole savanna featuring a large basin where the black rhinos and other animals can hydrate, contrasted by a desert savanna with a large island for a pair of cape vultures. Underneath, a tunnel can be opened or closed, depending on the animals’ needs. In the back of the habitat, there’s a long and low fence with openings big enough for hoof stock to pass through if desired but small enough to keep the rhino on their side of the enclosure.
“We wanted to put guests inside and have that sensation of feeling like they’re actually on a savanna,” says Monroe, “instead just creating a box where they can only look in from one side. This layout gives everyone multiple vantage points to experience the black rhinos.”
Around the corner from the main viewing area, there’s a pavilion where, for an additional fee in the future, visitors can get up close and personal with one of the black rhinos: petting their snouts, feeding them alfalfa cubes, and massaging them with an oversized back scratcher — an experience that wasn’t offered at the black rhinos’ previous zoos.
The Rhino Savanna also features plenty of built-in diversions for Jaali and Nia themselves. There are several hidden, timed hay feeders to provide them with variability and inspire movement, a wobbly tree that they can push and rub, plenty of logs for scratching, and a mud wallow filled with special dirt that holds moisture and offers Jaali and Nia natural exfoliation, insect protection, and sunburn prevention.
As part of the project, construction also included new restrooms and a concession stand for humans, as well as an animal care and nutrition center outfitted with massive windows where guests can glimpse the zoo staff preparing food for the more than 500 animals who reside across The Living Desert’s 1,200 acres.
“Historically, at most zoos, all the care is behind the scenes,” Monroe says. “It’s like magic. The animals never get sick. They’re never fed. They don’t poop. We’ve taken the opposite approach. Our vet hospital, for instance, has glass-fronted operating rooms. If we’re doing a procedure on a jaguar, there might be 200 visitors watching it happen. We’ve done the same thing with nutrition. Our staff will be in there slicing and dicing food for the animals.”
Across from the Rhino Savanna, the zoo is already planning to build a new home for another critically endangered African species: lions. A dramatic, rocky den is expected to debut some time in 2024, capping off the zoo’s Crossroads of Conservation project that commenced in 2018 with a new entrance plaza.
Until then, it’s happily ever after for Jaali and Nia.