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Two Southern white rhinos

Our rhino AI journey is coming to an end.  

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of blogs on the process of using artificial insemination on our female Southern white rhinoceroses. You can read Part I here, Part II here and Part III here.

Over the past year, we have shared a series of blogs to document our use of artificial insemination, or AI, to breed our rhinos. We had hoped that at the end of this process, we would have baby rhinos – but more importantly, that our females, Uzuri and Kibibi, would be contributing to the understanding of this critical species.

It is with bittersweet emotions that we share that after many months of collaborative efforts, we are marking the end of this journey after learning that 21-year-old Kibibi is not pregnant. However, what we were able to learn throughout this process is invaluable to white rhinos and will aid in the understanding of this important species.

Back to the Beginning

Since 2003, southern white rhinoceroses have called our Zoo home. While we hoped our male rhino, 21-year-old Frankie, and our female rhinos, 22-year-old Uzuri and Kibibi would conceive naturally, we eventually decided to turn to AI when they were unsuccessful. AI is an assisted reproductive technology used worldwide in humans and animals alike to deposit stored semen directly into an individual’s uterus. This technique allowed us to collaborate with other organizations to best match the genetics of our female rhinos to other male rhinos so that their potential offspring could contribute to a genetically healthy and diverse population of white rhinos.

As an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facility, we are committed to caring for not only the animals here at the Zoo, but also wildlife all over the world. We wanted to do our part in supporting the population of white rhinos and other threatened species so that they have long-term genetic diversity.

A few years ago, we began working with SEZARC, a not-for-profit group dedicated to increasing the populations of rare and endangered species through reproductive science. Researchers at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, SEZARC, Taronga Conservation Society, Australia and SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.  are the lead scientists for a study that our female rhinos are a part of. This study, which is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is focused on a protocol for artificial insemination that would benefit the sustainability of the white rhinoceros population.

Uzuri’s Try

When we first began this process, we worked with both Uzuri and Kibibi on undergoing testing, getting comfortable with their custom chute (a safe place for this process to take place in), increasing their time spent in that area and standing for voluntary ultrasounds. Based on training and testing, we were initially given the go-ahead to move forward with Uzuri.

We let our rhinos decide whether they want to enter the chute or stand for an ultrasound – and for how long. For several months, Uzuri voluntarily went through this process with us, until one day, she decided that she didn’t want to anymore. While we were disheartened, we respected Uzuri’s choice as the entire process is voluntary and decided to give both her and Kibibi a break before we tried again.

Kibibi’s Try

Based on their behavior in the months that followed, we felt comfortable starting again in late 2022. We made the decision to give Uzuri a longer break and focus on Kibibi this time around. Because she had underlying reproductive issues, we were aware that we faced a big challenge in successful artificial insemination.

Fortunately, Kibibi remained motivated throughout the entire process and voluntarily participated in all of her scheduled ultrasounds! In January 2023, we started the process to trigger ovulation, or egg development and release, for Kibibi. “As her dominant follicle started to mature and near the ovulation phase, her ultrasounds increased in frequency until ovulation was documented,” said Zoo veterinarian Dr. Kyle Donnelly. At that point, Kibibi was ready for insemination.

On the actual day of insemination in mid-February 2023, SEZARC was onsite at the Zoo to perform the AI. Kibibi received ultrasounds every 2-3 hours until we identified ovulation. Once we were able to confirm, she was sedated by our veterinary team and artificially inseminated using a catheter.

Then, we began patiently waiting to see early stages of pregnancy. Our veterinary team cautiously watched and monitored Kibibi, checking her hormone levels weekly, and routinely looking for the development of a fetus and new ovarian follicles.

Unfortunately, after much monitoring, we have confirmed that Kibibi is not pregnant.

While this is not the result that we wanted, we want to emphasize just how much we’ve learned throughout the AI process and how it will further the conservation of this species. “Being part of this collaborative study allowed us to contribute to the overall knowledge base of white rhino reproduction, which is an incredible resource for their overall conservation goals,” said Zoo veterinarian Dr. Kyle Donnelly.

As an added bonus to this entire process, we were able to capture her exact time of ovulation on ultrasound – images that have never been documented before.

What’s Next?

We currently have no plans to further AI with either of our females. Uzuri and Kibibi will continue to live with our male, Frankie, in the Expedition Africa section of the Zoo. Although female rhinos can reproduce until their late 40s, we have low hopes that they will conceive due to having no success in the past.

“We gave Kibibi the best shot that we could,” said Dr. Kyle Donnelly. “[Uzuri and Kibibi] will both continue to contribute to white rhino research and conservation efforts wherever possible.”

As with all of our residents, we are committed to giving Uzuri and Kibibi the greatest possible physical, mental and emotional health throughout their lives here at the Zoo. We do this by providing unparalleled veterinary care, a well-balanced diet, positive reinforcement training, meaningful choices, and an enriching environment.

Brevard Zoo is an independent, not-for-profit organization that receives no recurring government funding for our operating costs. Your generous support enables us to continue to serve our community and continue our vital animal wellness, education and conservation programs.