New rhinos about to be unveiled at Safari Park

Posted at 6:56 PM, Feb 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-16 21:56:43-05

10News got the first look at the newest rhinos at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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After months of getting used to their new environment at the park, the six southern white rhinos are finally ready to move where the public can see them.

When they first arrived from Africa in November, Senior Zookeeper Weston Popichak immediately volunteered to train them.

"I definitely knew early on that I wanted to work with animals, but I didn't know specifically that I'd be hanging out with a bunch of rhinos," said Popichak.

Popichak is with the rhinos every day, so he gets to see their personalities, including their playful side when they hang out in the mud.

"You just saw them rolling in the mud, and I don't think anybody doesn't enjoy watching a bunch of rhinos do that," he said.

Although the public will enjoy watching the rhinos roll in the mud, the real reason they're here is to take part in a very experimental, high-tech technique to try to save the northern white rhino.

After the death of Nola, the last northern white rhino in the United States last year, there are only three left in the world. None are medically capable of breeding.

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Scientists at the Safari Park are working with a team around the world, using northern white samples to create a test-tube embryo.

Through in vitro fertilization, these southern whites would then be surrogate mothers fro their northern white cousins.

"It's a very, very exciting opportunity, to be sure," said Popichak. "I'm excited, that's how I feel about it."

Popichak said he hopes the ambitious experiment works, giving his work even more meaning.

"It is really a fulfilling job. It's really great to be able to do this every day," said Popichak.

The rhinos haven't been in the new public habitat yet. The gate will open Thursday, but it might take some time before the rhinos feel comfortable moving to where the public can see them.