Around the Mall & Beyond- page 4 | Science | Smithsonian

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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"They're an endangered species, all right," says Lehnhardt. "Men and tigers are the problem. Their grazing lands are steadily being reduced, and they're hunted for their horns and skin."

Think about this: we worry over the fate of elephants, because there are only 650,000 left. There are 11,000 rhinos. Of this species, the greater one-horn Asian rhino, there are only 2,000 — on the whole planet.

The other four species are the Javan rhino and the Sumatran in Asia, and the black and white rhinos of Africa.

"Being able to breed them is our safety deposit for the future," Lehnhardt says. "It's important that people see them in the zoo, see the baby and fall in love with it. We may get three million people in this one building in a year. Our mission is to create a concern for the species itself and the wilderness in general.

"We humans are part of the continuum of life on earth. We brought the rhino to the brink of extinction. It's up to us to try and bring them back."

Rhinos don't roar. They chirp and whistle and hee-haw like donkeys, which is natural because they are related to horses and tapirs. (I could see the equine features in Chitwan's long, blunt snout.) They also seem to make sounds below human hearing.

Rhino eyes are famously weak, and some people believe the animals' so-called bad temper is simply a startled reaction to a threat they can't see. I must say, Chitwan's eyes are not impressive. With that dimly searching Mr. Magoo expression, she looks as though she could use glasses.

This also may be why Mechi is so very protective. Even when she is just moving from one room of her enclosure to the other, she checks it out like a Secret Service operative, sniffs, listens, pokes into piles of hay, while Chitwan waits by her rear hoof.

Interestingly, the rhinoceros is the only existing animal I can think of that has what I would call a dinosaurian name. Tyrannosaurus, "rhinosaurus"? Everyone comments on how prehistoric the creatures look. I also found a curious resemblance to early Japanese samurai armor with its wide-skirted, plated effect. It is true that coats of rhino skin have been worn as armor.

But not to worry about that fearsome horn. It serves well when charging a safari Land Rover, but for a real fight between angry males, the long, sharp lower front teeth are the weapon of choice.

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