Around the Mall & Beyond- page 3 | Science | Smithsonian
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Around the Mall & Beyond

Since her arrival in September, baby Chitwan has charmed visitors and curators alike. This is the first birth of a rhino at the National Zoo since 1974

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Perhaps this keeps enemies from knowing there is a baby around. Rhinos have few diseases and no enemies at all in captivity, of course, but in the wild there are tigers. To a tiger, a baby rhino is a walking appetizer.

"In Chitwan Park," says curator Lehnhardt, "there are 450 rhinos but also a hundred tigers. And they take out 10 to 50 percent of the baby rhinos. This may look like a hefty baby to you, but to a 400-pound tiger, it's just a morsel."

When rangers in Nepal come across a baby rhino eaten by tigers, generally all that remains is a pair of tufted ears.

Those ears are something else. They work independently, and since they are, with the nose, a rhino's sharpest sense organs, they waggle all the time, harking to every little squeak and shuffle, swiveling about like radar dishes.

"I am partial to elephant babies," remarks Lehnhardt, who spent the first part of his career working with elephants in zoos in Chicago and Calgary. "But I'd never seen a baby rhino. And this one has won me over. She's a doll."

(The father, by the way, is Sport, age 16, now on loan to the Philadelphia Zoo. Sport also impregnated Kali who, at press time, had just given birth to a 150-pound male. All of a sudden, the National Zoo is up to here in rhinos!)

"The breeding is pretty amazing," says Lehnhardt. "Very determined on both sides. The act itself can take an hour. The female can only conceive for a few hours during estrus. She gives clear signs when she's ready, she vocalizes, urinates, stops eating and starts climbing the walls."

Pregnancy takes 15 to 17 months, and a mother can have a baby no more than once in three years. They nurse from one to two years.

"Rhinos are very instinctive," Lehnhardt says, "and they know what to do in a birth. We basically watch, and keep ready in case help is needed. The baby has to hit the floor breathing, and the mother has to want to care for it. It has to be able to stand and then to nurse. If they pass those tests, they'll be okay."

Now Mechi is trotting. She moves at a steady pace, her huge bulk riding smoothly on her stumpy legs, her head held high with an eerie sort of dignity. The baby trots just behind her, not quite as dignified, but getting the hang of it. The two of them head for a pile of hay, where Chitwan will get her hourly snack of mother's milk.

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