The biggest surprise to
me when I started working with wild rhinos was, in general, how
quickly black rhinos settled into life in captivity and how long it
took white rhinos to get to the same point. Because black rhino
have a reputation as the “aggressive” species of rhino, and knowing
how much more unpredictable black rhino are in zoo environments, I
expected them to take a long time to take down and get used to human
presence and being confined. You can imagine how shocked I was when
I was hand-feeding treats to a wild black rhino within days!
In most zoos, black and
white rhinos are conditioned to respond to cues and perform
behaviors that made veterinary exams and treatments easier for the
keepers as well as making them less stressful for the rhinos.
Keepers generally work with them through a protective barrier,
either in a chute or alongside the fence. Very few zoos allow their
zookeepers to go into the holding areas with black rhinos.
In the right environment,
black rhinos can do well in captivity. In my experience, how well
and how quickly a rhino adapts or does not adapt to captivity is
unique to each individual. Some rhinos can readily adapt to the
space constraints, the unnatural diet, (often) lack of privacy,
dense vegetation and quiet. Others have such a prolonged violent
reaction that they have to be released within days. And some seem
to thrive in captivity, having calves every two years, always
maintaining a healthy weight and never experiencing any health or
behavioral issues. It is likely that diet, space, socialization,
and availability of a wallow and scratching/rubbing post have a
significant impact on how well black rhino do in captivity, but they
are not the only factors and certain individuals will thrive in the
same place that others will suffer.
Since black rhino naturally
depend on a browse diet that is impossible to recreate in captivity,
there has been a lot of research done on their needs and preferences
in order to maximize nutrition and overall health for the species in
captivity. These nutritional requirements, as well as the physical
and mental requirements of the rhinos must be met to ensure healthy
populations. There has been some speculation that issues such as
the skewed sex ratio of black rhino births (more males than females)
occur because one or more of these requirements are not being met.