To help save the rhino from extinction, a young keeper at Kanazawa Zoo is striving to make the captive environment for the mammals as close to what their natural habitat in the wild would be.

“I hope visitors to our zoo will sense the world of wild animals and recognize their situation,” Masaru Senzaki, 28, said. “I want to create such opportunities.”

Senzaki takes care of two Indian rhinos at the Yokohama-run zoo — Gopon, who is now pregnant, and her partner, Kintaro. While male Indian rhinos like Kintaro weigh nearly 3 tons, they are like spoiled children in need of lots of attention, according to Senzaki.

Gopon and Kintaro are two of eight Indian rhinos kept at zoos in this country.

When Senzaki was assigned to his current position four years ago, Kintaro was suffering from cracks on the soles of his hind feet.

In the wild, Indian rhinos, also known as greater one-horned rhinoceroses, live in marshy environments.

Senzaki spread a large amount of straw over the concrete floor of their sleeping chamber. But as the daily replacement of straw was impractical, he placed tatami mats on the floor and spread a layer of wood chips over the rest of their enclosure.

The mats were not the final solution as they quickly wore out. Now, the floor is no longer bare concrete but covered with a 40-50-cm-thick layer of straw combined with fallen leaves, earth and fungi collected from a nearby mountain.

“Though I remove things contaminated with droppings, I leave others as they are because I want to re-create a natural cycle to the best possible extent,” Senzaki said.

Earlier this year, he removed the remaining concrete at the entrance of the sleeping chamber and built an underground water passage by burying tree branches.

With these changes, Kintaro’s hoofs have been rapidly healing.

Senzaki comes from a cattle farming family in Fukushima Prefecture and in his younger days he dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.

He learned to care for pets at a vocational school after graduating from high school. But he wanted to work with wild animals and joined a team of elephant keepers at Kanazawa Zoo six years ago.

In the third year of his work there, he was assigned to care for the Indian rhinos as well as for elephants. “I had no knowledge of rhinoceroses but found the work intriguing,” he said.

There used to be many kinds of rhinoceros species, but only five remain, all of which are designated as endangered species as a result of illegal hunting for their horns, which have a black market value equal to gold. Rhino horns are processed into craft pieces and Chinese-style medicine.

“I always consider what is good for animals,” Senzaki said. “As animals here (at the zoo) cannot choose their environments, we breeders must think of them first of all.”

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