Congratulations, it's a rhino! Loving care - from a distance - helps threatened species survive

Corky is one big, bouncing baby - 120 pounds plus at one month old. Nobody knows his exact weight, though, because nobody wants to plunk him on a scale while big mama is around. She's 2,500 pounds of black rhinoceros - a protector weightier than three grand pianos, two refrigerators, and one overstuffed sofa, all put together. So who's willing to tackle that bulk? This new addition at Brookfield Zoo brings to 69 the number of black rhinos now in captivity in North America. Because they're a species being stampeded to extinction by poachers, every new calf - born in or out of captivity - is a cherished bunting.

Ann Petric, who's responsible for Corky's well being, can tell you it's no easy job playing nanny to a baby you can't get near. But that drawback goes with her territory. For the past three years, Ms. Petric has been in charge of all Brookfield's ungulates (hoofed animals), both babies and adults, a group numbering 203. Eleven endangered species are among her wards, the best known being the black rhino, the white rhino, the Asian elephant, and Grevy's zebra.

Fortunately, a trained volunteer helps her with Corky, who takes much watching. Sitting for hours outside the black rhino domain, the volunteer records the baby's every action. And Corky is a busy baby. He trots about and tries to wallow. In grown-up style, he charges mini logs and fake rocks, only to find that hay yields best to such attacks. While big mama naps, he snorts, squeaks, and bleats, and it takes a real pro to tell a squeak from a bleat, the latter sounding a shade more pathetic. The observations are then handed over to Petric for study.

Petric's concern for Corky and all black rhinos goes deep, because these thundering beasts with the piggy eyes are being pushed pell-mell to oblivion's edge. According to Brookfield Zoo figures, their number in the wild has plummeted in the past two years from 8,000 to less than 4,000. In 1980, their count was estimated at 15,000, a meager number considering that at one time hundreds of thousands populated the span from the Sahara's lower border to South Africa.

Like their endangered cousins (the African white and three Asian species), the black rhinos are hunted not for their meat but for their horns, which are coveted as an ingredient in patent medicines and as ornamentation. Poachers, who wield automatic weapons, generally make an easy kill, leaving the carcass to rot and slicing off the horn which, once it's made the route through middle men, will retail for about $5,000 a pound in Asian markets. (Horns of the Asian species command even higher prices.)

The biggest clamor for rhino horn comes from ``traditional'' Chinese medicine shops, where for centuries the shavings have been sold as a fever remedy. And about 16 years ago, a voracious market for rhino horns opened up in North Yemen, Petric explains.

Almost all Yemeni men carry a dagger called a jambia, a symbol of status and manhood. In times past, when the country was in the vise of poverty, most males could only afford a jambia with a handle carved from cow horn. But in 1970, at the close of North Yemen's civil war, men were freer to travel to Saudi Arabia, where they earned big money. With cash in their pockets, they could now sport jambias with rhino-horn handles at staggering costs that topped at about $13,000.

Yemen statistics show that between 1969 and 1977, 25 tons of rhino horn were imported, accounting for the slaughter of approximately 8,000 rhinos of all species. But since the white and Asian species already were at low ebb when these demands escalated, poachers turned more and more to the black rhino.

Petric sees no silver linings in the black rhinos' tomorrows, but she does admit there are specks of hope.

``African countries are beginning to move animals into sanctuaries, bringing small populations together to better protect them and to improve reproduction rates,'' she says, citing the efforts in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, and Zambia.

She recognizes that poachers constantly slip into sanctuaries and reserves, because African conservation units are too understaffed to patrol extensive boundaries. To boost resources and manpower, Petric looks to additional international funding for African's conservation coffers.

There's also a need to put pressure on countries to enforce laws and treaties that forbid trade in rhino products, she explains. Good intentions penned on paper aren't enough. Black market trading of rhino horn still thrives in various areas, even though bans exist in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Macao, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and North Yemen. As for Brunei in Borneo, it's still wide open, with no restrictions at all.

Fourteen years ago when Petric first came to Brookfield, she didn't quite know what she was getting into. Back then she was a college grad from Purdue with a major in wildlife biology, and she ``wanted to work with animals in one way or another.'' She joined the zoo staff as a keeper of reptiles and has worked her way up the ranks to her current post.

Her days are packed not only with supervising the ungulates but also their 17 keepers and the animals' physical facilities. She also communicates with other zoos on long-term management. With satisfaction, she tells that zoos are now ``cooperating rather than competing. They pool info about successes and failures,'' a thrust that is definitely for the good of species.

Leaning against the railing to watch Corky, Petric comments, ``I understand how people say, `So what's the rhino to me?''' She readily admits that its extinction wouldn't be any great shakes to many humans. When you drive a Chevy on a city street, how can you miss a black rhino?

To her, though, the black rhino is a bellwether. Let it go and more will go; the floodgates will be open for a parade of extinctions.

``It [the black rhino] is an indication of what our population is doing to the world overall,'' she says.

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