black rhino living desert


The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens’ Rhino Savanna habitat debuted in November. Here’s the backstory on its star inhabitants, Nia and Jaali.

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black rhino living desert

Nia comes from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio.

They relocated from other zoos.

The nearly 2-year-old male Jaali (pronounced Jolly) is from Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Michigan; the 3-year-old female Nia (pronounced Ny-a) is from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio. Except for when they breed and rear young, black rhino are actually solitary species, so they will both have their own spaces in the habitat, which was constructed in the desert-centric zoo’s Africa section, across from the popular giraffe haven.

They have lots of neighbors.

In their four-acre habitat, Jaali and Nia are joined by 11 other African species. The wildlife includes waterbuck, klipspringer, egrets, vultures, and pelicans. “We’ve created a pretty close facsimile to what you would see in the desert savannas of Africa,” says Living Desert CEO Allen Monroe, who along with his team is particularly excited about the colony of hundreds of naked mole rats — the largest in North America — that visitors can see through an ant farm-like series of tunnels constructed within the rocky entrance to the  Rhino Savanna.

They’re endangered.

Listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the black rhino population is staggeringly low. There are about 5,600 of them in Africa. The species’ main threat is humans and the rampant poaching of their horns. “They’re lumps of keratin on their nose,” Monore explains. “It’s the same as our fingernails. They’re not special. They don’t glow in the dark or do anything except for what the rhino needs them for to survive.”

They took a road trip to get here.

Jaali and Nia embarked a three-day cross-country journey in individual trailers, moving into their Rhino Savannas home Oct. 20. “It was a smooth trip — no bad weather, traffic, or accidents,” notes Living Desert animal care director RoxAnna Breitigan, who was on the team that monitored the duo by constant video surveillance and several physical checks along the way. “When we got off [Interstate] 10 to come here, we joked that we were going to stop by Starbucks first,” Breitigan says, “but we didn’t.”

Scratch My Back.

The best way to win over Nia and Jaali? They both love alfalfa cubes and firm massages. “Rhinos are amazing creatures, but with their short, stubby legs, they can’t scratch behind their ears,” Monroe says. “If you use an old-fashioned bristle brush on a six-foot pole [and rub them], the rhinos will sit there all day long.”

They will hopefully mate.

Monroe and other conservationists are hopeful that Nia and Jaali will become parents in a few years. The massive black rhino pair — she’s 2,000 pounds; he’s 1,500 — were found to be compatible by an Association of Zoos and Aquariums initiative that works to ensure genetic sustainability and diversity among animal populations. “It’ll probably be about four years until they’re at reproductive age,” Monroe says. “In the meantime, they’ve got a lot of growing up to do here.”

• VIDEO: Take a look at the Rhino Savanna Habitat and What You Can Expect to See.