Earlier this year, we let you know that we had begun the process of using artificial insemination, or AI, to breed our rhinos. We hope that at the end of this process, we will have baby rhinos – but more importantly, that our females, Uzuri and Kibibi, will be contributing to the population of southern white rhinos in order to ensure long-term genetic diversity for this critically important species.
You may be wondering, “What’s going on with rhino AI these days?” We wanted to loop you into what’s been happening behind the scenes as we continue this amazing science journey with Uzuri and Kibibi.
While we hoped our male rhino, Frankie, and our female rhinos, 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 allows us to collaborate with other organizations to best match the genetics of our female rhinos to other male rhinos so that their potential offspring can contribute to a genetically healthy and diverse population of white rhinos.
A couple of years back, we began working with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC), a not-for-profit group dedicated to increasing the populations of rare and endangered species through reproductive science. We have also coordinated with the white rhino Species Survival Plan (SSP) on genetic testing.
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 want to do our part in supporting this near-threatened species.
A Rhino-Sized Update
In March of this year, we were making progress with Uzuri as we prepared her for AI. She and Kibibi spent lots of time behind the scenes undergoing testing, getting comfortable with their custom chute (a safe place for this process to take place in), increasing time spent in the area and standing for voluntary ultrasounds. We had been given the go-ahead, based on training and testing, to move forward with Uzuri’s AI.
This entire process is voluntary. Our rhinos decide whether they want to enter the chute or stand for an ultrasound – and for how long. For several months, Uzuri had voluntarily gone through this process with us, until one day, she decided that she did not want to anymore. While we were disheartened that we could not move forward with AI at that time, we respected Uzuri’s choice and decided to give both her and Kibibi a break before we tried again.
Based on the behavior of our female rhinos, in July, our animal care staff made the decision to try again. At this time, we are unsure if both Uzuri and Kibibi will be selected as candidates for AI, but we are beginning the process again of getting both rhinos comfortable in the chute and with ultrasound training.
“Starting this process again meant going back to square one,” said Chelsea Herman, the Zoo’s Curator of Animals. “We began training both girls the same way we did the first time around.”
Are Babies in Our Future?
If Uzuri and/or Kibibi voluntarily go through the entire process again, the final step is to be artificially inseminated with genetically chosen sperm from a male white rhino living at another AZA-accredited zoo. If the AI is successful, we still wouldn’t see baby rhinos for some time – the gestation for white rhinos can be up to 16 months!
While we love the idea of having baby rhinos and contributing to the population of this important species, the health and wellbeing of our animals is paramount. At the end of the day, if the AI process does not result in babies, all of the work that we’ve done will contribute to the understanding of this species.
“We are so excited to help further the field of knowledge on the reproductive systems of older female white rhinos who have not previously conceived,” said Chelsea. “This research could be vital in helping us understand how to best assist in conserving this species moving forward.”
We will continue to keep you updated as the AI process continues, so keep an eye out on our social media channels and our blog!
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.