By Noreen O'Donnell
(Reuters) - An eastern black rhinoceros has been born at Atlanta's zoo for the first time in the facility's history, spurring hopes of renewed interest in the fate of the critically endangered animal.
The calf, which was born on Saturday night, appears to be healthy and bonding with its mother, Zoo Atlanta officials said on Sunday. It has not been named and its gender has not been determined.
"Not only is this a first for Zoo Atlanta, going all the way back to our founding in 1889, but this is a critically endangered species that absolutely deserves the spotlight right now," Raymond King, the zoo's president, said in a statement. "We hope that as we watch the calf grow up, we can spark new connections with wildlife that desperately need our support."
The calf, which does not yet sport its species' signature horn, was born to Andazi, a 7-year-old female, and her 9-year-old mate, Utenzi.
It was the first offspring for both after the pair were recommended for breeding by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Rhino Species Survival Plan, which seeks to maintain a genetically diverse, self-sustaining rhino population in North American zoos.
Andazi's pregnancy was confirmed in December and viewed through an ultrasound earlier this year.
Rhinos have gestation periods ranging from 14 to 18 months. Calves are usually weaned within two years of being born, though they might remain with their mothers for up to four years.
The eastern black rhino was hunted almost to extinction, and in recent decades it has suffered near-catastrophic population declines, largely due to poaching. Its horns, skin and other body parts are believed by some to have medicinal value.
Conservation programs and patrolling of the rhino's habitats have helped populations to increase to about 4,800 in the wild. The western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011.
Black rhinos were once the most numerous of the species, according to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, where a calf was born a year ago. Black rhinos numbered 65,000 in 1970, but the global population had dropped to 15,000 by 1980.
(Reporting by Noreen O'Donnell in New York; Editing by Karen Brooks and Paul Simao)