Rhino Bride Hunt

Toby Ninan retired from Delhi Zoo about two years back. With his varied experiences with the wild animals in the zoo, he is the right person to direct your queries to. Hear what Ninan has to say about his life and chosen career!

Finding suitable partners for our charges is a full time job and fraught with many dangers of very different kinds.
After locating the bride or the groom - somehow it is usually the bride that needs locating - preparations go on in full swing to bring her home. Introducing her to the Prince Charming requires all the animal behaviour skills one has acquired over the years. All these are jobs which entail a few headaches and very many sweet memories.

It was the Rhino' MOHAN' this time and though he had this huge 4 acre wooded estate with a private mud wallow all to himself, there had to be the LOE (Lady of the Estate) to make things really complete!

The result of a large number of letters, a bit of wining, dining and some flattery, resulted in ' Rongi ' the female rhino being promised for us .We, Hari Ram ( Zoo keeper) and myself, finally reached Kaziranga Sanctuary and were comfortably ensconced in a small guest house. Soon we went to see this lady who had blotches of pink on her flanks and back, which gave her the name Rongi or the coloured one. Certainly she was one who had a highly coloured spirit too and had nearly made up her mind not to leave the stockade in which she was housed to go to the great city of New Delhi.

A few days of starvation coupled with the temptation of luscious green grass in her traveling box, the bottom of which was plastered with her own dung, finally made her change her mind. After four sleepless nights Hari Ram came banging at my door to tell me that she was trapped in her crate with the sliding door rope stays cut down to block her re-entry to the stockade. Although the green grass was fading and not very fresh, we could feed her well. After making sure that she had plenty of water to drink, and attending to a few of the wounds she got during the struggles, we finally retired for the night.

The next day was another exciting day which involved haggling over the fare to Gauhati by truck and getting two elephants to lift Rongi- crate and all -into the truck. By night fall I was asleep on top of the driver's cabin, Hari Ram had made himself comfortable with the driver and we were on our way to Gauhati. The next day morning saw us loading this precious cargo right into the centre of what railways call a postal van or an eight wheeler bogie. The loading entailed a crane and dozens of labourers armed with crow bars. The crate had to slide from one end to the middle of the long van. It could and would get blocked at different points where it would have to be eased out by man power only. We had to make sure that it was loaded at the dead centre otherwise we could have had a derailed train which was not what anyone wanted!

The van was finally hooked on to an express train and which was ready to leave from the main platform. To add to my troubles a "babu"came charging down to our bogie to tell us that his calculations were wrong and we would have to pay nearly double the fare we had already paid. If this money was not paid it would be recovered from his pay and all the moneys he would get from the rest of his tenure would go to the Railways. I consoled him and told him though I did not have the money then I would pay as soon as I reach Delhi and would make sure that he and his family would not starve.

We used to cook our food a mixture of boiled rice ,vegetables and pulses. We gave the same sort of mixture of cooked rice, pulses, jaggery, salt and oil to Rongi - all of 10 kg per day. This gooey mixture was supplemented by 15-20 kgs of cabbage, lettuce, or any vegetable green or otherwise that we could lay our hands on..

At nearly every station, railway staff connected our bogie with a running water hose with which we could cool down Rongi who would bang the roof of her crate with her horn to say that she was hot or hungry or both. We also had a big drum which held plenty of water in case there was some "cooling" problem! It was also a source for our bath and I am sure that some co- passengers would have stories of a half clad man having a bath next to a caged rhino.

Staff at most stations were very cooperative except once when I went to meet a fellow curator. When I returned, the bogie, the rhino, and the keeper had disappeared! The bogie had got attached to some train heading back to Gauhati.This certainly gave me a minor heart attack but my prayers saved the day and after passing through a few stations the bogie was found to have been wrongly "marshalled" .

I didn't understand what that meant ! But then the Railways got moving and soon I was in a taxi headed to the station where the bogie was stalled. I re-boarded it vowing never to get off till we reach Delhi. The journey which would take only two days took us nearly a week as the metre guage bogie would have to travel through West Bengal, Bihar, U.P., Rajasthan and finally ended up at Sarai Rohilla station in Delhi.

It was indeed a great relief to see those big muscled men, their bullockcarts and block and tackles at Sarai Rohilla station. They gently took Rongi, crate, water drum, cooking vessels and all off the train and brought these to the Zoo. We could now release Rongi into the beautiful enclosure which she would now share with Mohan. They were housed for the next few days in adjacent enclosures, where they could see and smell each other.

We were waiting for the day when Rongi would come into heat and Mohan could start a family. Soon Rongi was in full heat and early morning all the zoo staff surrounded the open enclosure with crackers , tins and any noise making contraptions. Both animals were left out and they banged into each other by their nasal horns like some giant battering rams and soon we had the male chasing madam round and round their wooded estate reminiscent of some Hindi film but on a gigantic level and to the music of shouting, banging tins and exploding crackers. As soon as Rongi was a little tired Mohan charged under her belly and threw Rongi up in the air some three feet and bang she came down with a tremendous thud. This was the first time I had seen this behaviour though I knew it in theory. I was sweating and shivering in my shoes but I had to show that I was calm and passed on a few orders to yell and shout when things got too rough.

Finally after a few 'throwings' which the old girl was none the worse for, things calmed down and both animals retired into the cool watery depths of the moat and to the accompaniment of grunts and snorts, they mated. Though tired beings, all of us heaved sighs of relief - happy to wait sixteen long months for baby rhino's arrival.

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