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Rhino social media stinks. It’s not the social part, though. On the Zoofari tour of the 40-acre Watani Grasslands habitat at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, guide Thomas Mecimore

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Rhino social media stinks. It’s not the social part, though. On the Zoofari tour of the 40-acre Watani Grasslands habitat at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, guide Thomas Mecimore

A Ride on the Wild Side at the NC Zoo

Rhino social media stinks.

It’s not the social part, though. On the Zoofari tour of the 40-acre Watani Grasslands habitat at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, guide Thomas Mecimore explains that the seven female southern white rhinoceroses that live there share information. A lot of it. Everything from “are they pregnant? Are they young? Are they old? Are they ready to get pregnant? Are they sick? Are they healthy?” he says.

As the safari-worthy Ford F-550 maneuvers to get a better view of Linda, Natalie, and the rest of the herd, Mecimore directs the driver to stop in a particular spot. He asks the guests to take a big whiff, and then explains why rhino Twitter stinks: It’s a heap of dung. Well, technically, it’s a “midden,” but no matter what you call it, it’s still a pile of poop. It’s just that these piles are packed with rhino hormones, which “the girls” can read like a book.

Guide Thomas Mecimore enthralls the two dozen guests aboard the Zoofari bus, sharing stories and facts about the animals. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

“A rhino will come and leave a post,” Mecimore says. “Then the next rhino will come up and sniff and read the post and will leave a comment, and then continue onward.”

The middens are an important form of communication, and sense of home, for the rhinos, which is why the piles are left alone for weeks at a time. “Keepers only clean it up about once a month, maybe twice a month,” Mecimore says. “And they pick the oldest piles first, so as to not to break up that communication.”

• • •

The rhino poop is just one memorable moment on a journey that begins when the second of two reinforced steel “rhino gates” slides closed, and everyone on the open-air bus takes a moment to find their bearings. Most patrons never get this perspective of the zoo: being in a habitat with 70-plus wild animals. The habitat is made to resemble African grassland — complete with towering, fabricated termite mounds that hide feeding stations for the smaller residents. And for those taking the tour on a humid Piedmont afternoon, with the chirp of cicadas cutting through the hot, still air, it even feels like rolling onto an African savanna.

For the next 45 minutes or so, Mecimore educates and entertains. He peppers guests with facts about the Watani habitat, about the seven species of antelope that call the NC Zoo home, and about the stars of the show — the formidable yet docile southern white rhinos, tinted Randolph County red from the local soil. It’s easy to be distracted by the exotic species grazing just a few yards away, but Mecimore keeps the attention of his charges with one-liners and anecdotes about the animals.

As the bus slowly rumbles behind the new baboon habitat and up to where the rhinos are lounging, necks crane to see the enormous animals hiding in plain sight. Anticipation turns to excitement, then to awe as the rhinos come into view.

“Do you like unicorns?” Mecimore asks a girl wearing a unicorn T-shirt. “Did you know they’re real? They are! And they’re magical.

“And what is a unicorn?” he continues. “Well, it’s a horse with a horn. And since rhinos and horses are related, and rhinos have horns …” Mecimore pauses to let the revelation sink in. “These are just super chubby unicorns.”

• • •

Each tour lets the personalities of the guides shine through, especially when they share their pet names for the animals. One guide calls the herd of male waterbucks — a large, semi-aquatic species of antelope with long, ringed horns — The Judgy Boys. Mecimore agrees: “Nothing compares to the waterbucks’ stare, because once they start staring, it’s so … judgy.”

These waterbucks once played a role in the waterbuck Species Survival Plan (SSP) — “kind of like an eHarmony dating app for the animals,” Mecimore says — but their services were no longer needed. When that happens, the animals end up at a facility like the NC Zoo, where they live out the rest of their days in a boys’ club called a bachelor herd.

The fringe-eared oryx is known as “the alarm system of Africa.” photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Same goes for the comparatively tiny Thomson’s gazelles. One big difference between the two bachelor herds, though — besides the obvious disparity in size — is that while the waterbucks secrete an oil that makes them smell bad and probably taste terrible to predators, the “Tommys” are, to put it delicately, tasty. “Everybody wants to eat the Tommy,” Mecimore says. “This is the chicken nugget. They are literally Africa’s fast food.”

The nearby fringe-eared oryx — a large species of antelope with long, straight horns that form a “V” on the tops of their heads — has earned the nickname “the alarm system of Africa,” Mecimore says. “They’re tall and they’ve got those beautiful black lines on their faces, which deflect glare. They may see farther across the grassland than a lot of other animals. So when they start running, other animals notice and start running, too.”

• • •

Around every turn, Zoofari guests are greeted with stunning views of the habitat, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the adjacent African elephant north habitat. OK, it’s only a peek through the trees of a huge ear flapping, but it still warrants a “look, look, look” from one of the kids on board.

Conversely, the bus itself becomes something of an exhibit for zoogoers visiting the Africa habitats. It isn’t every day that you happen upon a safari driving among rhinos in the middle of Randolph County.

From the far end of the habitat, Mecimore spots the herd of female greater kudu — a tall, brush- or forest-dwelling antelope — calmly grazing. Unlike the waterbucks and Tommys, the greater kudu’s SSP calls for a male suitor to visit the zoo to try to increase the species’ population, possibly as soon as this fall. All told, five of the species living on the Watani Grasslands are part of the zoo’s breeding program: the greater kudu, the southern white rhino, the fringe-eared oryx, the bongo — a primarily nocturnal antelope — and one of the most endangered of all, the addra gazelle, of which there are only about 500 remaining in the wild.

Keep an eye out to see greater kudu grazing. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

As the truck rolls down the dirt road along the back side of the habitat, Mecimore spots the addras and asks the driver to stop. He points out the gazelles with their white bellies, rumps, and faces, as people jockey to get a photo with Carolina pines in the background. Mecimore explains that, despite the fact that addra gazelles are a desert species, the zoo was asked to host three of them — a male and two females — on the Watani Grasslands habitat due to the success of its antelope breeding program. “Now, we’re just waiting for nature to take its course,” he says.

With the staccato croak of bullfrogs serenading guests on the way back to the gate, Mecimore closes the tour by sharing what the zoo is doing to save more than its resident animals. Conservation efforts range from the zoo’s SSP breeding and Saving Animals From Extinction programs to involvement in many international wildlife conservation programs intended to reduce human-animal conflicts, which are a serious issue throughout Africa. One example: the zoo’s southern white rhino conservation efforts, which are making a significant impact in Namibia.

On the rhino home front, the zoo’s breeding program has been remarkably successful, largely thanks to the maternal prowess of Linda — mother of Abby, Kit, Nandi, and Jojo, and grandmother to Bonnie and Mguu — the matriarch of this magical herd of chubby unicorns.

North Carolina Zoo
4401 Zoo Parkway
Asheboro, NC 27205
(800) 488-0444

This story was published on Aug 31, 2023

Todd Dulaney

Todd Dulaney is the executive editor at Our State.