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Drafting a Future for Rhinos: Assam Rhino Reserve

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Inspired by the sweeping marshlands of Northeast India—where broadleaf forests meet elephant grasses, rolling rivers and dense pockets of jungle—Assam Rhino Reserve evokes the timelessness of nature’s grandeur. Yet look closer. The new exhibit, opening this May at Woodland Park Zoo, confronts one of the most enduring battles of species conservation: wildlife trafficking. The same wildness we revere in Earth’s breathtaking landscapes, we put at risk for trinkets, knickknacks, placebo medicines, and trophies.

Photo of greater one-horned rhinos by Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Rhinos have become one of the most iconic symbols of wildlife trafficking. But trafficking is not an issue isolated to the wildlife of Asia and Africa. The Assam Rhino Reserve will help shed light on a very local problem—trafficked animals that are smuggled through our own sea and airports, and local species that are also being illegally killed for their parts.

“This is a huge challenge,” says Woodland Park Zoo senior interpretive content developer Sarah Werner. “We have to reset the way people think about these issues and empower everyone with ways they can make a difference in the slowing of wildlife trafficking. We have to make an experience that is accessible to families; in thinking about action, hope is still important. We have to consider that our audience is all ages, kids and adults—how do we inspire them?” For Werner, a marine biologist with a background in documentary filmmaking, it’s all about being inspired herself. “This issue is not just about saving certain species. It’s about preserving the amazing biodiversity of this planet. And if this exhibit can help bring a greater understanding of that, then we’ve succeeded.”

The most inspiring experience of all will be your chance to get up close to greater one-horned rhinos for the first time in Woodland Park Zoo’s 119-year history. We will become home to two young rhinos with distinct personalities, and our design team has the animals in mind at each turn. The exhibit will feature a soaking pond and goopy mud wallows (the species is the most aquatic of its kind), opportunities for browsing and grazing, logs to play with, as well as both indoor and outdoor spaces for the two to spend their time as they choose. You will be able to get close to these animals and their care givers during feedings and bath time to see what it takes to provide them the best in care.

Aged bamboo in the Assam Rhino Reserve space, photo by Kirsten Pisto, WPZ

For Katura Reynolds, Woodland Park Zoo interpretive content developer, it’s all about the animals. “I’m just extremely excited to meet the rhinos and be able to share that with our guests. Getting up close to these animals is going to be an amazing experience—one I think will inspire our guests to take action on their behalf.” Katura has a background in science illustration and has always found communicating complex ideas to be a fascinating challenge, which is a skill that couldn’t be more fitting for this project.

The young rhinos were both born at other accredited conservation zoos. They’ve never faced the threats that haunt their wild cousins, yet their very presence may catalyze hope for their species and all the others threated by wildlife trafficking.

Rhinos are among the animals that are most hard-hit by poachers; their horns fetch more than gold or silver on the black market. Made of keratin, the same material as your fingernails, the horn has no medicinal benefits whatsoever. Yet it remains a highly sought after luxury item among those wealthy enough to seek this pretend elixir as a false cure for cancer, impotence, hangovers and other ailments against which it truly has no power. While China is often blamed for its insatiable appetite for endangered animal parts, the issue is alive and well right here at home—the U.S. also ranks as one of the largest consumers of trafficked wildlife.

Idea sketch for an educational and interpretive sign in Assam Rhino Reserve.

Whether we fault a cancer-curing rumor, a status symbol for a record number of indulgent new multimillionaires, or a shortage of real medical treatment for a growing population—the lucrative and violent poaching business has global implications. Rhino horn and other trafficked animal parts easily make their way from Africa and India to other parts of the world, snuck in among legal goods, deep inside container cargo ships in ports like Beijing, Genoa and even here in Seattle. The highly organized crime syndicates that back wildlife trafficking profit immensely, funding terrorism, corruption and human trafficking.

Photo of greater one-horned rhinos by Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Complicated doesn’t begin to explain it. But we’re up for the challenge. The exhibit design team is busy creating an interactive space that will transport our guests to another world, while also spotlighting the fact that our own state is wrapped up in the complex web of the illegal wildlife trade. The team will be introducing guests to two incredibly cool, dynamic animals while acknowledging the hard reality that this species is in great danger because of people. And most of all, the team must inspire hope in our guests and spur the community to join us in advocating for a species that lives halfway around the world—because only together can we push back against multimillion dollar, international crime rings with a growing market. Oh, and then there are the turtles and cranes in the exhibit, who have their own incredible stories. Easy, right?

Demoiselle cranes will accompany rhinos and Asian tortoise in Assam Rhino Reserve. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, WPZ.

We’ll let you decide how we do, but in the meantime, we are fervently drafting an experience we hope will be a catalyst for protecting all wildlife. We hope your family continues this conversation long after you leave the exhibit. We hope you’ll add to our story, introduce your own solutions, and continue to rally with us to be the voice for rhinos, tigers, bears, otters, turtles and cranes. We believe you are up to the challenge, and we’ll be right alongside you in the fight to stop wildlife trafficking.

You can support the Assam Rhino Reserve experience at

Asian forest tortoise. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, WPZ.