Omaha’s Indian rhinos did a whole lot of growing up this week.
As the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium readied the two-ton animals to move into a new exhibit in the Asian Highlands (set to open May 24), rhinos Jontu and Hellary finally found eyes for each other.
Zookeepers have tried to breed them for five years, hoping to produce Omaha’s first Indian rhino calf, but the spark just wasn’t there.
Then, under the stars at midnight one week before the move, the magic moment finally arrived.
“It was a hallelujah moment for us,” zoo director Dennis Pate said. “It takes the male quite a while to put it all together.”
There was little time for pillow talk. By 8 a.m. Wednesday, the two horny pachyderms were loaded up in padded metal crates, ready to shack up in a new home.
The 10-year-old rhino couple are the first tenants of the zoo’s Asian Highlands exhibit. It’s a $22 million, 8-acre project set to open in two phases in a previously undeveloped hillside north of Simmons Aviary. The first half will debut May 24, south of the train tracks.
“From a guest’s point of view, for the first time it will seem like we have Indian rhinos, even though we’ve had them for five years,” Pate said. “They’ve been tucked away over by the train station, so now they’re going to be front and center.”
Rhinos will be joined in the Asian ruin-themed exhibit by red pandas, Père David’s deer, white-naped cranes and tufted deer. In 2019, the exhibit will add Amur tigers, snow leopards, sloth bears and two species of goat-antelopes called takins and gorals.
The Indian rhinos were moved on Wednesday using a massive John Deere forklift. It took a couple of hours of maneuvering to get their crates in place for a safe exit into the new rhino barn, but the animals held up their end of the bargain. It took Jontu just 17 seconds to leave the crate, walk the chute and fully enter his new home.
Zookeepers crate-trained the animals for two months ahead of the move. Their new barn has a 4-foot-deep mulch floor, infrared heating and a quarantine stall that can be used for mud baths or showers.
The rhinos have now vacated a plot of land north of the carousel that used to house gaur. Soon, the zoo plans to develop the area into a new exhibit for polar bears.
Architects were at the zoo Wednesday to sketch plans for a companion exhibit for sea lions, Pate said.
As for Jontu and Hellary’s baby: If the big guy was successful, the gestation period for rhinos is 16 months.