Endangered black rhinos meet for first time at Oregon Zoo

February 4, 2016 - 12:17pm

Rhinos Zuri and Ruka enjoy a rainy "first date" in the zoo's Africa Savanna area

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, could love be in the air for Zuri and Ruka, a pair of critically endangered black rhinos at the Oregon Zoo?

The two behemoths — each weighing more than 2,500 pounds — enjoyed a rainy romp in the zoo's Africa Savanna section this morning, tearing around their habitat, chasing, shoving and playfully head-butting one another. It was the pair's first get-together since Ruka, a 5-year-old male rhino, arrived in Portland last summer.

After gradually introducing the rhinos to each other behind the scenes, keepers arranged an outdoor meet-up this morning, and the pair seemed to hit it off immediately, according to zoo animal curator Bob Lee.

"It was your typical first date in Portland," Lee said. "The skies were dark and rainy, but we're crossing our fingers that love was in the air. The pushing, shoving and running around are exactly the kinds of behaviors we were hoping to see."

Keepers expect the two young rhinos will be outside together more frequently once the weather gets nicer, and are hopeful that the pair continues to hit it off and perhaps adds to the population of this critically endangered species.

"Black rhinos are among the most endangered mammals in the world," Lee said. "All rhino species are in serious trouble — poaching and illegal trade at their highest levels ever. More than a thousand rhinos were killed last year in South Africa alone. Hopefully, we can inspire a new chapter in the conservation of this amazing animal."

In 2011, the western subspecies of black rhino (native to West Africa) was declared extinct. Zuri and Ruka belong to the eastern subspecies, which is considered critically endangered. "We've gone from half a million to a few thousand rhinos left in the blink of an eye," U.K. naturalist Steve Backshall wrote recently. "While those left in the wild are ludicrously precious, the rhinos that are in zoos (which were bred there, born there and cannot ever be released into the wild) are of disproportionate importance to their kind."

Ruka, whose name is Swahili for "jump" or "bounce," was born at the Saint Louis Zoo in January 2011. His transfer here as a companion for Zuri was recommended by the Species Survival Plan for black rhinos, a cooperative program among accredited zoos aimed at ensuring a sustainable, genetically diverse population of this critically endangered species.