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Why this rhino-zebra friendship makes perfect sense

Young friends

Both species can survive within an hour of birth, but both white rhinos and plains zebras still require parental investment. Rhino calves stay with their mothers for two to three years, while zebras can become independent after a year. During this time, the young depend on their mothers for food, protection and socialization.

Although these species do not interact closely in the wild, Nieuwoudt placed the two orphans together so they would receive the comfort they missed from their mothers. She says the couple especially liked to touch each other while they slept. “It’s the feeling of, ‘Oh, there’s another little breathing moment next to me and another little heartbeat next to me,’” says Nieuwoudt.

Moreover, the young people were able to teach each other how to play. “Play behavior is very important for building social skills, learning boundaries and becoming physical skills,” says Terri Roth, a rhino scientist at the Cincinnati Zoo. Socialization with another animal at a young age “ensures that the animal adapts much better as it matures.”

A keeper feeds both a zebra and a rhino from bottles at the same time.

Employee Cindy Ndwandwe bottle feeds Daisy and Modjadji.

Photo by Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary

Protecting these species on the plains

In the wild, the territories of rhinos and zebras overlap; both are herbivores that often feed on grass. “The use of the savannahs by white rhinos and zebras is quite similar,” says Roth. And these animals are both perissodactyls, a group of ungulates that also includes horses and donkeys. “They are taxonomically more closely related than anything else.” This could explain why a rhino would serve as a surrogate companion for a zebra, she says.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists plains zebras as near threatened, and their population is declining. Climate change is causing major droughts, making food and water less available to zebras, and they are being pushed out of their habitat as people farm the land.