A rhino kind of love

Priyanka Kotamraju | Updated on September 12, 2014

Reluctant suitor: Shiva the male rhino who must spawn a crash of calves. Photo: Kamal Narang

Maheshwari the vivacious mother assigned to mate with Shiva. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Will the Delhi Zoo’s valiant attempts to mate a 34-year-old celibate male rhino with a mother-daughter duo succeed?

On August 19 in Byculla, rhino Shiva was coaxed into a cage filled with sugarcane and bananas. It was big enough for him to stand and sit in and served as a mobile home as Shiva embarked on a 1,400 km, four-day journey to find a suitable mate at the Delhi Zoo. More than five months later, Shiva is struggling to keep up with his newfound life, which, after 28 lonely years, has taken an unexpected social turn.

Nursing a nearly two-year-old injury on his horn that is just beginning to heal and a new one festering on his tail, Shiva has been thrown into the company of a vivacious mother-daughter duo, both of whom are expected to take turns to mate with the ageing rhino from Byculla. But the celibate 34-year-old Shiva is closer to kicking the bucket than spawning a crash of calves. (The average lifespan of a one-horned Indian rhino is about 35 to 40 years.) While the primary veterinary officer, Dr Panneer Selvam, says Shiva is “happy”, and “enjoying the Delhi weather”, his life in the enclosure tells another tale of mounting mating expectations and an elaborate cosmetic cover-up. Yet, the team at the Delhi Zoo is hopeful of pulling off this audacious rhino matchmaking attempt; they’ve given him a roomy enclosure, a diet peppered with hormone pills, an invitation to gambol with the womenfolk and attention to his wounds.

“Shiva is adjusting well,” the doctor says. In the first month of his arrival however, he had been quite difficult — refusing food and throwing tantrums. “The trouble is that Shiva’s old horn injury got worse on the way here. And the flies and maggots have aggravated it. Then he hurt his tail when he got into a mud pool. But we are treating him and he’s much better.” The zoo director, Amitabh Agnihotri agrees, “Shiva is under treatment right now.”

Since his much-documented arrival at the Delhi Zoo, Shiva, who was adored by the Mumbai janta, has yet to make his public debut. He has been confined to his enclosure and is let out into the larger, one-acre grassland only on Fridays, when the zoo is shut to the public. “We don’t want to cause panic because rhinos are very popular,” says Selvam, “Shiva will be released into the open when he has recovered.” We are also told to avoid profile shots; his maggot-covered, bloody and broken nose will not make for a pretty picture.

At 9:30 am every morning, veterinary compounder Paulose, who has been at the Delhi Zoo since 1999, picks up his kit and cycles to the rhino enclosures. “The horn injury is an open wound,” says Paulose, “so it needs to be dressed daily.” There are three enclosures, two small ones for 16-year-old Maheshwari and her eight-year-old daughter, Anjuga, and a bigger, two-roomed one for Shiva. Sturdy sliding iron gates secure all the enclosures. Wire mesh on the windows keep out the flies. Fluorescent lamps dot the place, yet another protection against the fly menace.

“He is in a state today,” says Binod Kumar, one of the rhino keepers. Cries of “Shiva, aa, aa, aa” ring out but Shiva resolutely turns away. After several minutes, Shiva moves into the second room of the enclosure and heads straight to a corner to furiously scratch his nose on the wall. Paulose picks up a bottle of chloroform spray and follows him. We tiptoe behind Paulose, spotting small pools of fresh blood in the corners where Shiva has been scratching his nose. Clearly, the rhino is in pain. After spraying chloroform in Shiva’s face, Paulose wraps a swab of cotton on a long stick and proceeds to clean the rhino’s nose, carefully picking out dead maggots. Then, he applies neem oil and douses Shiva’s nose with powder. By now, Shiva has calmed down and is ready to eat the bananas he had earlier refused. The wound on his tail has also healed, observes Paulose.

Ladies in heat

Shiva was six years old when he arrived from the Assam State Zoo to Byculla Zoo and has lived in captivity since. While Selvam is confident of the 34-year-old rhino’s reproductive capabilities, others remain sceptical. “Shiva is of wild origin,” he says, “so there is a possibility of higher potency. When we went to Mumbai, we found no problems with him.” The two females are also not far from being “in heat”. “Maheshwari is showing signs of being ready — declining food, being restless and peeing constantly. If my calculations are right, it (the crossing/mating) could happen in a month’s time,” the doctor says. Binod Kumar, the rhino keeper differs, “Maheshwari is showing some signs but it will take time and Anjuga has not betrayed any interest yet.”

The mother-daughter duo has not been near a male rhino in six years; Raja, the last male rhino had died of an illness. Maheshwari, according to the keepers, is growing accustomed to Shiva’s presence. While Anjuga enjoys sunbathing in a private wallowing pool away from prying eyes, Maheshwari’s turf is the outer, larger enclosure that is open to the public. Every evening, before Maheshwari returns to her cell, she first walks up to Shiva’s enclosure, exchanges a few grunts with him, checks on Anjuga in her private bath and then retires to her cage. “She has begun to pick up Shiva’s scent,” says Paulose. A female rhino can begin breeding at the age of four; Maheshwari was eight when she had Anjuga.

Besides the fodder and bananas, the rhinos feed on a mixture of mash, which consists of wheat bran, barley, oats, Bengal gram, groundnut cakes, turmeric, amla and salt, and hot khichdi which is made of dal, rice, oil and jaggery; a huge dietary improvement on Byculla zoo’s modest offerings.

Rhino romances are not all roses and champagne. Before lunchtime, Paulose returns armed with a tranquiliser gun and a hormone injection for Maheshwari. While Shiva gets his hormone pills mixed with his food, Maheshwari is given a more direct dose. Maheshwari has been in the outer enclosure for hours. Soaking the sun in a new pool she has dug for herself, she turns a deaf ear to the keepers’ cries. Dozens of bananas are hurled at her at once and speakers are brought out. Paulose even breaks off a Peepal tree branch and waves it to draw her attention. “Madam aaj mood main nahi hai,” says Binod Kumar, with resignation.

Forty minutes later, Maheshwari suddenly gets up, pees into the pool and then breaks into a run. The keepers swing into action, guarding the doors of the enclosures. Once she is in the common area, she quickly walks up to Shiva and sniffs through the meshed window — more evidence of her being “in heat”. Paulose aims his gun, the pink feathers of the injection fluttering, and catches her between the soft folds near her neck. “We gave her one shot a few days back, there are a couple more to go,” he says. Maheshwari returns to her mud pool munching leaves and the zoo staff return to their own repast.

For the Delhi Zoo, rhino breeding is an important part of their master plan. Even as they nurse Shiva back to health and acquaint him with the two females, efforts are on to find a younger male rhino. Shiva, in his twilight years, has a tight schedule to follow. He has to acclimatise to Delhi’s weather, the zoo’s diet and his companions; get his nose and what remains of his horn back in shape; change his status from available-Fridays-only to available-round-the-clock; and mate, health permitting, with both mother and daughter. Will he, won’t he?

Published on January 31, 2014

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