White rhino calf born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

White rhino calf born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A white rhinoceros calf born Saturday at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is healthy and checking out his surroundings, park officials said Tuesday.

The male calf has also been nursing and resting under the attentive eye of mother Holly.

"We are very excited Holly gave birth to a healthy calf," said Kim Shuler, senior animal keeper at the park.

"The calf is nursing well, which is a great sign," Shuler said.

"Holly is an excellent mom and very protective of her newborn. She allows the other rhinos to approach, but gets very vocal when they venture too close to her little guy."

The birth is significant because it might be linked to a change in diet for southern white rhinos, according to the zoo's Institute for Conservation Research. Scientists were puzzled because southern white rhinos in zoos reproduced less often than their counterparts in the wild, a phenomenon not matched by other rhino species.

Institute scientist Christopher Tubbs discovered that the animals may be sensitive to compounds called phytoestrogens, found in soy and alfalfa, which are a component of their diets in zoos. During their 16-month gestation, female calves could be exposed to the compounds through their mother's diet, resulting in permanent infertility issues later in their life.

According to the zoo, southern white rhinos were given lesser amounts of pellets rich with soy and alfalfa, and developed a grass-based pellet for the rhinos that are low in phytoestrogens but supply nutrients to support reproduction.

Around two years after the diet changes, three females -- two that had never successfully reproduced before, including Holly -- became pregnant.

"Holly showed no evidence of pregnancy for the past 10 years, despite breeding," Tubbs said. "This successful birth gives us tremendous hope that diet changes can improve fertility in captive-born females of this species, which for decades have struggled to reproduce."

Southern white rhinos are listed as "near-threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources because of increase poaching.

Their northern white rhino cousins are nearly extinct, with three non- reproductive members left in the world.

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