Cincinnati Zoo's black rhino calf, Kendi, turns 4 months old

Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-09 07:14:07-05

CINCINNATI -- Fiona isn't the only baby being celebrated at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden this year. For the first time in nearly two decades, the zoo welcomed a black rhino calf. The birth of Kendi, who is now 4 months old, marked a milestone for the zoo and the species.

Fewer than 5,000 black rhinos are in existence today. The Species Survival Plan, or SSP, manages about 60 of those in zoos throughout North America. 

The Cincinnati Zoo was not part of the black rhino breeding program again until 2015, when a male named Faru was transported from Atlanta to mate with Seyia at the Cincinnati Zoo. The SSP deemed the pair a good genetic match.

WATCH BELOW: Video of Kendi at 4 months old


With help from CREW scientists, the zoo was careful to introduce them at the right time during Seyia's cycle. Rhinos prefer to be solitary animals, another factor contributing to their extinction, so mating can be difficult. Fortunately, Faru and Seyia got along and successfully mated.

"We were very lucky," said Marjorie Barthel, senior veldt keeper and longtime employee at the Cincinnati Zoo. "There was sparring of course, but it didn't take long for them to breed."

After a 15-month gestation period, Seyia gave birth to a calf on July 17, 2017. Hers was the first black rhino birth in Cincinnati since 1999.

"Both mom and calf have been healthy," Barthel said. "Everything's been perfect. We couldn't ask for better."

Since Kendi's birth, the zoo staff has been cautious over the months to give Seyia and Kendi the space they need to bond. Like most mammal mothers, black rhinos are very protective of their calves. The zoo even had to separate Seyia and Faru during her pregnancy when she became territorial.

Seyia with her calf, Kendi, at the Cincinnati Zoo. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"They were hanging out together and taking naps," Barthel said. "That was all fine until her hormones kicked in."

The staff also wasn't able to approach Seyia or her calf following its birth, so it took several weeks to determine the baby was male. Although the staff would previously never enter the exhibit with Seyia or her calf present, they are now able to approach them from behind a fence or gate to give treats or perform quick checkups -- a feat that was months in the making.

Once the calf's sex was determined, they named him Kendi, which means "the loved one" in Swahili.

Now that Kendi is 4 months old, Seyia and her calf are beginning to warm up to the zoo staff. Although the ultimate goal will be to separate Kendi from his mother to continue the necessary training and medical care of the two rhinos, the zoo won't wean him away from her until he's ready.

"He's glued to mom, which is absolutely natural because in the wild they would never be a part for predator reasons," Barthel said.

The African black rhino is now considered a critically endangered species due to poaching and deforestation of its natural habitat. Native to Eastern and Central Africa, the black rhino is often killed for its horn, which are made out of keratin and which some believe can be used for medicinal purposes. Although science and experts have debunked those theories, poachers still pose an imminent threat to the species.

At 4 months old, Kendi is starting to eat treats, browse and hay, while also nursing. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Rhino births like Kendi's are giving researchers hope.

"Their numbers have definitely increased," Barthel said. "We're trying to withhold the population in captivity, so this is a big deal for us. It's a good, positive thing for the black rhino."

And staff members like Barthel are enjoying having a baby rhino around.

"He's starting to understand what humans are, so he's getting really spoiled, really fast," she said.