KANSAS CITY — The eastern black rhinoceros is a critically endangered species, but the Kansas City Zoo just keeps churning them out.
Or, rather, it is Luyisa who has been doing the work, having just produced her third healthy calf in 10 years.
“Everybody was very thrilled about it,” said General Curator Liz Harmon, referring to the reaction of the zoo world and conservation experts to this birth, which occurred Oct. 18. “When it was born — and it was a girl — everybody was ecstatic.”
First, any birth in a species that only has a few hundred left in the wild is a good thing. Second, there are more males than females in the captive population, so girls are celebrated. Third, the father in this case had never sired a calf before, so his genes are not overrepresented.
And fourth, Luyisa, the mom, was born in the wild, so her genes are a welcome infusion into the captive gene pool.
The latest addition in Kansas City has been named Layla. The zoo has not made a splash about her because she won’t be on public display until the African section of the animal park reopens April 1, but The Kansas City Star got a sneak peak on Friday.
The Kansas City Zoo went to Africa to acquire Luyisa in 1997 in a trip chronicled by The Star. At the same time, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo brought back a female of its own. She produced her fourth calf in August this year.
As a bonus, all seven offspring of those two animals have been female.
“It was good trip,” Harmon said of that 1997 expedition. “It helped the population a lot.”
On Friday the calf plodded around in the zoo’s rhino barn, staying close to her mother and only a little wary of visitors.
Zookeeper Ellie Ray said the calf was expressing a personality, presenting her nose between the bars to be scratched and occasionally letting out a squeal. She is nursing and also eats roughage but no fruit yet.
She weighed 89 pounds when zoo staff gave her a neonatal exam one day after she was born. It took four keepers to hold her. Since then she has gained at least 50 pounds. She stands about 2 feet high at the shoulder. Her horn is barely a nub but is growing. Her feet are all toes. Big toes.
Kansas City now has five specimens of the eastern subspecies of black rhinos, which are distinct from white rhinos. Luyisa’s first offpsring unfortunately died at age 8 while in transit to the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Her second one, Imara, is in Kansas City. The sire of those two calves, Rudy, also remains here, as does the new father, Tucker.
Adult rhinos are normally kept separated unless conservation officials decide it is appropriate to breed them. Luyisa and Tucker were introduced to each other for about a year before there were any sparks.
“When she would cycle, we’d get them together,” Harmon said, “but he didn’t have it figured out for a while.”