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DateLine Sunday, 19 August 2007

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Resuscitation

Regaining the rhinos:

Kosala was the most riotous of the two, toppling over an iron frame and demolishing a red brick wall although it was Anula who wounded herself, banging her head on the cage. For so many days afterwards they couldn't stand each other.

Put yourself in their shoes after a five day, prolonged and agonizing journey by plane, they reached their destination to find themselves in a totally unfamiliar, land. The two new additions to the Dehiwala Zoo, black rhinoceroses, now popular as Kosala and Anula arrived in pretty bad shape, anxious and stressed out.


Kosala, the new baby rhino at the Zoological gardens

They were traded for a couple of Asian baby elephants from the Nagoya Higashima Zoo, Japan. Kosala and Anula christened after the male and female baby elephants are five and eight years old, respectively.

The word rhinoceros is derived from Greek, which means 'nose horn', for their most distinctive feature, the nasal horn. Believe it or not these horns are not horns at all, but are made of Keratin, the stuff that makes up hair, nails and hooves.

It has no connection with the skull and grow through out life and are regenerated if lost. In fact Kosala's horns were cut in half to prevent difficulties during the five day journey. Another distinctive feature of black rhinoceroses are their prehensile upper lip for grasping branches, from which they get the name 'hooked-lipped rhino'.

They don't have incisors and canines. Black rhinoceros, although not black at all, are brown, massive and can grow up to 2.9 to 3.1 metres long and can weigh up to 0.9 to 1.3 tons. They have a life span of 40 years,. Female rhinoceroses give birth after a gestation period of 16 months.

All rhinoceroses are solitary and primarily nocturnal grazers with extremely thick, bare, folding skin. Shy animals by nature they can be seen grazing during dawn and dusk. They spend their day wallowing in the mud or dozing off. The mud acts as a seel against insects and the scorching sun. They depend almost every day on water, but can go for up to five days without going in search of a water hole.

They prefer to lead solitary lives except during the mating season and are also highly territorial, marking their territory with dung and urine. Black rhinos are known to be more aggressive and hostile than White rhinoceroses.

They are one of the most rare and highly endangered species, found only in the African continent, habitats ranging from Savannas and mountainous regions of East Africa. The subspecies of Diceros biocornis, which Kosala and Anula belong to, are exclusively East African.

Five rhinoceros species exist in the world today - Black rhinoceros, white rhinoceros, Indian rhinoceros, Javan rhinoceros, and Sumatran rhinoceros. Although to untrained eyes they may seem much alike, migration to different continents at early epochs of evolution, has made them evolve in to distinct species, adapted to different habitats, climates, and feeding grounds.

They differ in both aspects of history and anatomy. Rhinoceroses are not closely related to elephants although they may appear so in bulk, and believe it or not their closest connection is with horses, asses and tapirs; whom along with rhinoceroses belong to the Perissodactyla (Odd-toed ungulates) order.

In fact the history of black rhinoceroses runs 12 million years deep. Dicero bicornis genus, which Kosala and Anula belong to, emerged around four to five million years ago.

Jack leaves have replaced Kosal

la and Anula's normal diet of oak leaves, in Japan where they were born. Anula's favourite spot is near the wall of their enclosure. Leaning over the wall Anula gives the impression that she's uncomfortable and in distress.

But the veterinary surgeon of the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala, Dr. Jagath Jayasekera assured us that she was perfectly fine. He told the Sunday Observer that the zoo got down two rhinos with procreation in mind. "Since black rhinoceroses are extremely rare this has been an exceptional opportunity for our zoo". But since the rhinos were from two different zoos in Japan, it would take some time for them to get along with each other.

"At first they couldn't even stand the sight of each other, so we had to divide the two enclosures with a cloth separator. They were stressed out at first because of the change in the environment and have tried to hurt themselves," but he explained that they came around eventually.

"They must have first felt confined, after the spacious enclosures in Japan. Unruly Kosala ate the Jack leaves enthusiastically as we watched and the vet explained that he just started eating again after four days of refusing almost everything. The rhino babies are now under antibiotics and the vet assures that the wounds are already heeling.

Black rhinoceroses are a critically endangered species and with less than 4000 individuals remaining in the wild, captive breeding has become a vital part of rhinoceros conservation. Threats to wild rhinoceroses include habitat loss and poaching.

This took a turn for the worse with the increase in the use of fire arms - due to civil wars in Africa, the prize of rhino horns going up, political intervention, poverty, corruption and ignorance. Unfortunately their horns have a high medicinal value. Plus they are used to make ornaments like dagger handles.

More over the superstitions surrounding the so-called magical powers of rhino blood, body parts; and even urine, have added to their decline.

In fact black rhinoceroses were nearly wiped out of West Africa because of poaching. The situation has gotten worse in the past few years that the rhinos, like cheetahs are now experiencing what's called a genetic bottleneck, where the number of wild rhinos are so low that they tend to inbreed causing their immunity to deteriorate, there by making rhinos susceptible to diseases.

This can be overcome by cross breeding wild animals with captives. A critically endangered species with less than 4000 left in the wild, it's highly imperative to keep their numbers on check. And exchange programmes like the one that brought Kosala and Anula to Sri Lanka, could very likely save them from the brink of extinction.

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