“From very early on he was already showing signs of being a very confident young rhino. He is very inquisitive and adventurous and ‘bolshie’ seemed an apt description,” says Tim Rowlands, the zoo's curator of mammals.
How the rhino's personality develops will factor into what the zoo names the young male.
It was born earlier this month to a female named Asha, and even at birth, the young rhino was a hefty 132 pounds. Once an adult, it will likely weigh more than two tons. Also called greater one-horned rhinos, they're characterized by their unicorn-like single horn, earning them the scientific name Rhinoceros unicornis. They also have thick hides that looks like body armor.
Cameras were recording when the young rhino took its first wobbly steps. In only a month, it's rapidly grown. Video shows the rhino playfully bounding behind the heels of its mother. Asha will continue to raise her offspring for another year and a half before the normally solitary female returns to her solo life.
Zookeepers are excited for what they say will be a boost to the species' population numbers. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers the Indian rhino to be vulnerable to extinction. They face threats from poachers who profit from selling their lucrative horns. In the wild, the species is found near northwestern India, but habitat loss has also put a strain on the species' ability to thrive.
“Whilst it’s unlikely that this particular calf will be reintroduced to the wild, he will hopefully play a key part in the endangered species breeding program,” says Rowland. The Chester Zoo participates in the European Endangered Species Program (EEP), a system in which zoos and aquariums transfer at-risk species for breeding purposes. The young male rhino will likely move to another European zoo when it reaches sexual maturity at nine years old.
“If the issues that are putting them under so much threat in the wild can be tackled and appropriate habitat made safe, then it’s certainly possible that future generations can return [to the wild],” adds Rowland.
Despite their vulnerable status, the return of the greater one-horned rhino is considered a conservation success story. At the end of the 20th century, fewer than 200 individuals remained in the population, and the species was at the brink of extinction. According to the World Wildlife Fund, just over 3,500 exist today, thanks largely to protections from the Indian and Nepalese governments.
The greater one-horned rhino isn't the only species of rhino to face dire threats at the hands of poachers or human encroachment. Northern white rhinos famously lost the last living male from the species last March. Only two females remain, and conservationists are desperately trying to develop a million-dollar artificial insemination method to create a new Northern white rhino in a lab.
While the process still has a long way to go, scientists at the San Diego zoo artificially inseminated a Southern white rhino earlier this month, meaning the long-shot treatment could be possible.