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Conservationists launched an effort this month to save one of the world's rarest creatures - the northern white rhino. Only eight are known to exist and four of them were at a zoo in the Czech Republic. They've been shipped to Kenya, where scientists hope they'll get down to the business of breeding.
Nick Wadhams was there when the animals arrived in Nairobi.
NICK WADHAMS: It is 3:30 in the morning at Nairobi's main airport when a 747 jet lands with eight tons with an extremely rare animal - two male and two female northern white rhinoceros - packed in wooden crates and lying on straw. These rhinos are headed to the Old Pejeta Conservancy near Mount Kenya to see if the climate and the terrain will encourage them to get breeding.
Amish Curry directs the Back to Africa program, which helps return zoo animals to the wild. He prowls the tarmac, directing trucks, tractors and a giant crane - the animals come off the plane.
Mr. AMISH CURRY (Director, Back to Africa Program): The trip went very well. They're all relaxed; all, in fact, very settled; but obviously we want to get them on the road as soon as possible and reduce their stress. So, the trucks are waiting now and we're going to load two onto a truck with a crane, fasten them down and get out of here.
WADHAMS: When no one is looking, I climb atop one of the crates and peek in. A dank, musty stink rises from the rhino which is lying down and asleep. From this angle, it looks like a giant, one-ton slug.
(Soundbite of clicking)
WADHAMS: It takes three hours for a staff of dozens to place the crates on two flatbed trucks, and we're off on a 200-mile journey north, to the shadows of Mount Kenya.
(Soundbite of truck engine)
WADHAMS: The rhinos were sent to Kenya in a desperate effort to save their subspecies, which was hunted to extinction by poachers in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. No northern whites have been seen in the wild since 2005.
Dana Holeckova is the Czech zoo director who pushed for the relocation. Unlike other rhinos, northern whites breed poorly in captivity. That might have to do with the small zoo enclosures where they live, and these animals will be released into a fenced off, 1000-acre slice of the conservancy.
Ms. DANA HOLECKOVA (Zoo Director): In captivity, we bred successfully and (unintelligible) rhino. But of the white rhinos, they are bred only seldom and nobody knows why. And I'm sure (unintelligible) this program. (Unintelligible). The possibility to start is right here. It's more and more better. And this is why this is the last chance for survival, the last chance for the normal breeding, the last chance for the rhino (unintelligible).
WADHAMS: Hours later, it's time at last to release the rhinos into their new pens. Journalists scurry around a crate that dangles and sways from chains held by a rusty crane. Scientists have high hope for this rhino - a nine-year-old female named Fatu, who is in perfect health.
When handlers open her crate door, Fatu panics.
(Soundbite of rhino snorting)
WADHAMS: She wheezes and snorts for her mother, who has already been offloaded. Jan Szarek, Fatu's keeper, who flew in from the Czech Republic, coaxes her out with lullabies and a crust of brown bread.
(Soundbite of rhino snorting)
WADHAMS: It is panicky media saturated scenes like this that some scientists fear. Some rhino conservation groups refuse to back the project because of its costs - well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and because they thought the trip might kill the animals.
All in their pens at last, the rhinos seem calm. That's partly thanks to Barry White, a British rhino handler who helped get the animals used to their crates in the Czech Republic and came along for the journey. She's been dubbed The Rhino Whisperer for her way with the animals.
Ms. BARRY WHITE (Rhino Handler): They do love a lot of fuss and attention and -like horses really, and they really respond to it. So, it's been a lot of what we've been doing really - just making a big fuss of them over the last month. Yeah, rhinos respond well to love and being scratched. So, the whole name of the game is to make them as chilled out as possible. And, so, yeah, that's what I'm doing.
WADHAMS: Whatever she did, it seems to have worked. After the frenzy is over, a rhino named Suni snuffles around his pen munching hay and checking out photographers on the other side of a wooden fence. The question now is whether the females of his own species will express the same interest in him.
For NPR News, I'm Nick Wadhams at Old Pejeta in Kenya.
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