By Carrie Flood 

Rhinos are so much more than grey, squatty unicorns. Their elusiveness and rarity are similar to unicorns, but rhinos have never been known to glow, burp glitter or fly. (This is not to say they can’t; it’s just that scientists have never observed it.)

All five species of rhinos are vulnerable to extinction mainly because of two things: habitat loss and poaching for their horn. The Javan rhino is the most critical at the moment, with fewer than 70 individuals surviving in the wild, and none in captivity. The Sumatran rhino fares almost as poorly, with about 100 in the wild and about 10 in captivity. Greater one-horned rhinos are actually increasing in numbers, with about 3,500 as of January 2018. The most common are the black and white rhinos of Africa, and by “common” I mean about 5,500 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos. But the subspecies of both are in peril; the eastern black rhino was declared extinct in 2011, and the northern white rhino, as of March 2018, was down to two individuals (both female).

Yeah. It’s not good.

But all hope isn’t lost. The plight of the rhino is raising awareness of poaching, helping to stop the killing these magnificent animals for their horns, which are ground up and used in traditional medicine. (Rhino horns are made of keratin; the same substance that makes up our fingernails. Some traditional medicine practitioners believe that rhino horn cures a number of ailments from cancer to common colds. Following that logic, I guess we could save a lot of rhinos by getting periodic manicures.) Money donated to charities protecting rhinos pays for anti-poaching measures like drones and armed guards in the countries where rhinos still survive, so that’s great!

Meanwhile, Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) member zoos are doing all we can to help. Cincinnati is the only zoo in North America to successfully breed the Sumatran rhino. In 2007, they even sent their first calf Andalas to Sumatra, where he successfully produced a calf with Ratu, a female at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. The Cincinnati Zoo and the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary are the only two places that have successfully bred Sumatran rhinos in managed care in the last 100 years.

The Phoenix Zoo is home to a female white southern rhino named LouLou. She is beautiful, majestic and delightfully spunky. LouLou belongs to the population of southern white rhinos managed by the AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP manages all the animals in member zoos as a single population, with the aim of maintaining maximum genetic diversity. Each southern white rhino in an AZA member zoo is registered and is recommended for breeding with other rhinos based on many things, not least of which is their genetics.

Some zoos are good for breeding rhinos because they have the capacity to hold several animals and can separate males from moms with new calves, just as the animals would do in the wild. Some zoos serve as holding facilities, housing animals who are not breeding due to age or genetics. The Phoenix Zoo is a holding facility, and LouLou is not recommended for breeding right now. By keeping LouLou with us, the Phoenix Zoo indirectly contributes to the conservation of white rhinos, as it opens valuable space in zoos with breeding facilities. One day, we may get another white rhino, maybe a retired female like our beloved Half Ear who lived here with her companion Notch for many years. We are proud of our ability to provide the best care to our non-breeding rhinos and giving other zoos the space to breed these amazing animals.

The Phoenix Zoo is a member of the AZA community, and each member of that community is committed to doing their part to ensure the long-term survival of animals like rhinos. As a conservation organization and a member of AZA, we put what’s best for the species first. Meanwhile, we are directing our resources towards doing the best we can for non-breeding animals like LouLou. She has a dedicated care team that is committed to enriching her life while she’s here. In addition, we have supported several projects benefiting rhinos in the wild through the ACNC/Phoenix Zoo Conservation and Science Grants Program.

With your help, we have built some new exhibits that increase our capacity for breeding populations of other animals. You may be familiar with Jiwa, our baby orangutan, or Siku, the giraffe calf frolicking about the Savanna. They both represent the collective efforts of AZA member institutions working to maintain genetically diverse populations throughout the country. Next time you’re at the Zoo, swing by and say hello to LouLou. As a member of an endangered species, she is an important part of the future of white rhinos and our continuing efforts to save them.