Rhino baby coming to Safari West in Santa Rosa

The long pregnancy for Safari West’s resident rhinoceros Eesha is expected to result in the site’s first birth of a southern white rhinocerous, part of an effort to aid the conservation of a struggling species.|

The folks at Safari West, a 400-acre African wildlife preserve outside Santa Rosa, are joyously awaiting the birth of a baby southern white rhinoceros, a calf who could arrive within days or weeks, requiring extremely close monitoring of mom-to-be Eesha.

It’s not just because baby rhinos — with their smooth noses, expressive ears and puppy-like antics — are cute as all get-out.

They’re also a struggling species — the target of international conservation efforts, in which Safari West hopes to play a part.

Eesha is a southern white rhinoceros, listed as “near threatened” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. About 16,000 individuals are believed to exist in the world.

Though called “white” they are actually dusty gray. “White” comes from the Afrikaan’s word for “weit,” or wide, which refers to the animal’s wide, squarish mouth, evolved perfectly for grazing down large swathes of grass.

Eesha’s journey to parenthood is part of plan to contribute to the population that started with her arrival in 2008 as a 4-year-old. She came paired with a young male named Mufasa, on a breeding loan, said animal collections curator Nikki Smith. Another male, Waldie, later joined the small crash — part of the normal trade of animals between zoos and wildlife facilities to try to improve health and reproductive success among animals.

“We spent a lot of time trying to get them in the mood,” Smith said, but neither one proved more than a platonic companion to Eesha.

Then came Ongava, now 25, in June 2021 as part of a recommended match from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ white Rhino Species Survival Plan. He had sired several offspring elsewhere.

His arrival marked a notable change in vibe of the rhino enclosure, where the introduced pair shortly engaged in the assertive behavior typical of courtship, including breeding attempts.

Handlers already had been monitoring Eesha’s hormone levels to try to understand her reproductive cycles and saw changes last year that indicated pregnancy, Smith said. Ultrasounds later confirmed a calf in the making.

“It’s been such a very long time coming, 15 years in fact, so we are absolutely thrilled about the prospect of a healthy, rambunctious southern white rhinoceros calf,” Safari West owners Nancy and Peter Lang said in a statement.

Handlers have been conducting weekly thermal imaging to track the baby’s progress, catching moments of kicking and wiggling in recent days.

But it’s still not clear when the calf will arrive. The normal gestation is 16 to 18 months, a long wait and a significant difference in potential due dates, especially when it’s not clear when conception occurred.

Handlers think they have some idea, and believe Eesha may be getting close to delivery, based on hormonal changes and her swelling udders. But they still can’t say for sure, and are keeping close watch.

There’s some inherent risks in any birth, especially among the larger animals, Smith said.

Safari West is especially cautious because Eesha likely would have had her first calf at a younger age in the wild than she now is, though giving birth at 18 is not unusual. White rhinos can live up to 35 years in the wild and 40 in captivity, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Safari West, located off Porter Creek Road in the Mayacamas, has loads of recreational features, including overnight stays in elegant safari tents, safari tours of the grounds and wildly unusual animals for these parts, including cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, Cape buffalo, lemurs, wildebeests, several monkeys, many species of antelope and a wide range of exotic birds.

It has a significant commitment to conservation and education, as well, and, in the case of the rhinos, an interest in raising awareness about threats to their survival through habitat loss and poaching, primarily in pursuit of their keratin horns.

They’ve done so, in part, by exposing visitors to Eesha and her suitors and building the rhinos into their conservation education mission.

The International Rhino Foundation says poachers engaged in the illegal horn trade kill an average of two African rhinos each day.

Southern white rhinos are faring far better than northern whites, of which only two individuals are known to exist, as well as compared to four other rhinoceros species. Two of them, the Sumatran and Javan, number fewer than 100 each. There are about 6,200 black rhinoceros and slightly fewer greater white-horned rhinos native to the Himalayan foothills.

Though southern white rhino populations are in better shape, comparably, it’s because of conservation efforts over more than a century and a constant effort to maintain their existence.

Eesha’s pregnancy is therefore cause for celebration, with handlers reveling over ever kick from the baby they see.

Plans for safeguarding the baby through delivery include having two live cameras on Eesha’s shelter at all times. Handlers also will sleep on the property once the physical changes occur suggesting delivery is a day or two out, as rhinos historically give birth at night.

But there are no plans to intervene in the delivery unless it’s necessary, Smith said.

And once the calf is born healthy, staff will continue to monitor mom and baby, but visitors should be able to see them on display in their usual enclosure.

“We have cameras so we can keep an eye on Eesha day and night, both in her night house barn and outside in her habitat,” the Langs said. “As the time for calving approaches, the veterinarians and animal caretakers will be keeping an eye on her 24/7. In the meantime, in anticipation of the new arrival, we can’t help but peeking in on the cameras from time to time. We are excited to share the news with everyone.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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