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.




Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.