They're leathery, lumbering and exceedingly rare. According to zoologists who keep track of this sort of thing, only 39 northern white rhinos are known to exist. Twenty-eight roam the Garamba National Park in their native Zaire; three are on loan to the San Diego Wild Animal Park; the others are kept fat and happy in Czechoslovakia's Dvur Kralove Zoo where Miroslav Svitalsky has built a small herd 75 miles northeast of Prague. It's taken him 23 years, long enough to become friendly with his charges. As he makes the rounds at the zoo, Svitalsky stops to tweak a bristly, football-size ear, provoking a snort of delight from Nasima, the world's only breeding female rhino in captivity. He knows them so well, in fact, that he confesses to understanding the moods of the rhinos "better than my own wife's."
Set in chilly and hilly east Bohemia, a region best known for producing acid rain, the zoo at Dvur Kralove is a curious legacy of Czechoslovakia's former communist regime. Thanks to once generous government funding, the zoo acquired one of the most diverse and prolific collections of African hooved animals and other rare species in the world. Mountain reedbucks, bongo antelopes, Leche waterbucks and greater kudus glide gracefully across the 111-acre open-air park. There are pygmy hippos, Cape buffaloes, cheetahs, orangutans, South African hunting dogs and five subspecies of zebras.
The animals at Dvur Kralove, most now on the international Red List of endangered species, are descendants of stock transplanted from Africa to Czechoslovakia during the late 1960s. Virtually isolated from the international scientific community following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, zookeepers improvised their own breeding techniques. For many employees, says assistant director Kristina Tomasova, dedicating themselves to endangered species was a way "to escape the politics" that dominated local life. Now Tomasova worries that Dvur Kralove might succumb to nascent capitalism. Czechoslovakia's fledgling Environmental Ministry must devote its resources to the country's devastating ecological problems and can provide only a fraction of the $1.3 million the zoo needs to operate each year. Already the zoo has laid off 105 of its 250 employees and last month closed its research institute for gene-pool preservation. To raise money, Dvur Kralove has introduced an "adoption" program, asking donors to contribute the cost of a year's worth of food. Though the sums are small by Western standards, most Czechoslovaks can't afford the luxury. A northern white rhino costing 12,000 crowns, about $400 a year, would cost a Czechoslovak about four months' salary. A lesser kudu can be sponsored for $113 a year; a gazelle for $62.
The secrets of Dvur Kralove's breeding success are quite simple. "Breeding is one part management and one part luck," says rhino curator Svitalsky, who has supervised the births of eight northern white rhinos. The health and diversity of the original African stock has spawned a strong, disease-resistant generation. The survival rate for newborns ranges from 70 to 95 percent for most species, extraordinary by international standards. "Dvur Kralove represents a potentially valuable new gene pool," says Alexandra Dixon, a conservation officer at the London Zoo. Other than the rhinos, most of the animals live in large, established social groups, rather than pairs, another key to fertility. In fact, Dvur Kralove may be the only place the socialist family has really worked. "In groups of a dozen or more, animals interact naturally," says Tomasova. "They don't just stand around all day chewing fences."
Dvur Kralove curators have resisted the obvious temptation of selling a few of their rare animals to the highest bidder in order to endow perpetual care for the others. Recently, says Svitalsky, a private dealer offered $300,000 for an infant white rhino. Instead, he sold the calf to a German zoo for a fraction of the price, so that the animal will remain in a registered international breeding program. For as long as possible, the keepers are not about to sacrifice any fatted calves.
Breeding rare species in captivity is an insurance policy against extinction, but rhinos could hardly be considered "saved" if they existed only behind bars. Yet that may be their fate. There are just 3,400 black rhinos in Africa (down from more than 2 million at the turn of the century), 1,500 Indian rhinos and no more than 74 Javan and 800 Sumatran rhinos, all endangered. The very rare northern white, nurtured at the Czechoslovak zoo, and the southern white (4,750 on the hoof thanks to intensive management and breeding in South Africa) are listed as "threatened."
To save them, 300 researchers and officials from 30 countries met last month in San Diego at the first International Conference on Rhino Biology and Conservation. In a controversial proposal, Zimbabwe officials suggested selling rhino horn confiscated from poachers, as well as horn harvested from living animals, to finance protection efforts. (Trade is illegal, but a horn--considered an aphrodisiac--can command $20,000.) The idea is that the rhino must pay its own way to salvation, which isn't cheap: the most realistic hope is to bring them into sanctuaries, patrolled by armed rangers and perhaps fenced. In Kenyan sanctuaries, rhino populations are up, thanks partly to a policy of shooting poachers on sight. Survival may require managing the animals as intensively as in zoos, with mates chosen to ensure maximum genetic diversity.