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SNEAKING UP ON RHINOS WITH CAMERA IN HAND.

ESCONDIDO - The frisky baby rhino bounded across the compound, running around like some overgrown kid on a sunny day at the playground.

Unfortunately, its presence at the San Diego Wild Animal Park nursery was the result of poor parenting. Its mother had neglected her baby, resulting in its being moved here, where staffers were lavishing it with attention and hand-feeding. The oversize infant seemed to be thriving in its new environment.

The baby rhino was just the beginning of my photo safari at the animal park, which is run by the San Diego Zoological Society, the group that operates the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

Up to that point, I didn't believe I'd led a sheltered life. I'd held Koala bears in Australia, ridden elephants in Thailand. I'd even fed giraffes before. But a close encounter with a rhinoceros? Preposterous!

But as our photo caravan bumped along the dirt road in the East African habitat, we ran into group after group of friendly rhinoceroses.

Most visitors to the animal park roam the 1,800-acre wildlife preserve on the Wgasa Bush Line Railway, a 55-minute trip that is included with admission ($25.45 adults, $18.45 children). The photo tours, priced separately, are a way to get a bit closer to - and certainly more personal with - some of these fascinating creatures.

As our open, stake-bed truck slowed to a stop, several of the rhinos ambled over for a snack.

The animals pushed their huge horns up against the wooden railings of our vehicle. Our guide pulled out a bucket of apples and began to feed them. While they chomped away, she calmly petted them.

The guide asked if we would like to try. The other tour members anxiously waited to see who would be brave enough to feed a 16-ton rhino by hand.

Leaning over the railing, our first volunteer nervously threw the apple core at the rhino's mouth. Missed! Now the skittish passenger would have to get closer to the impatient rhino. She cautiously placed the fruit in the rhino's mouth, which slowly closed on the apples.

Looking down into the gaping maw, I couldn't see any teeth, just huge lips and a massive tongue. The guide explained that the plant-eating mammals only have molars in the back to chew their food.

Finally, I gathered my courage and grabbed a handful of apples. Slowly, the massive horn turned toward me, and then the cavernous mouth opened. I carefully tossed some slices in and reached over to pet my new friend. Its dusty, leathery skin felt cool to the touch.

Our guide explained that the rhino's horn is made of the same material as our fingernails and toenails.

The encounter caused another stereotype to evaporate: I'd always considered rhinos to be dangerous animals that would run you over like a tank. As it turns out, they're good-natured beasts with very poor eyesight. Once you get to know them, you're likely to lose your fear of them.

Don't get me wrong: You don't want to cross a rhino. Nor do you want to get in the way of these mammoth animals even when they're in the best of moods. An animal weighing 18 tons can do a lot of damage unintentionally. They shouldn't be feared, but they certainly should be respected.

As we drove off to see the other animals, I realized what a different way this was to get to know these creatures.

When you get a chance to feed giraffes, you get an idea of how amazingly long their tongues are. Good grief, I'm talking 2 or 3 feet. Yet their pink tongues are so agile. I guess ours would be, too, if we spent all day plucking leafs from trees for our sustenance.

It's also fascinating to learn that giraffes give birth while standing up. That means a three-foot drop for the babies. But they seem to recover rather quickly.

From the back of the truck, you get a profound sense of just how tall these graceful animals are. I had to extend my arm high above my head so that they could comfortably reach the food I was holding. Their huge eyes seem to draw you in as they grasp for the food. The feel of that giant, wet tongue was so strange.

The giraffes seemed timid and spooked easily. We found it best to move slowly and deliberately in their presence.

This certainly hadn't been an issue with the rambunctious and ravenous rhinos.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: The San Diego Wild Animal Park lies six miles east of Interstate 15 near Escondido. Exit at Via Rancho Parkway and follow the signs.

TOUR OPTIONS: Visitors may choose from three photo caravans:

Tour 1 (One hour, 45 minutes) visits the East Africa enclosure, home to Southern white rhino, Baringo giraffe, white-bearded gnu, Kenya impala, Roosevelt's gazelle, Cape buffalo, vultures, flamingos and herons. The Asian Plains feature Indian rhinos, Malayan sambar deer, axis deer, nilgai, blackbuck, Persian goitered gazelle, Indian gaur and Altai wapiti. Cost is $96.50 per person and includes park admission.

Tour 2 (One hour, 45 minutes) takes in the dry plains of South Africa. Here, you'll find Northern white rhino, reticulated giraffe, Hartmann's mountain zebra, sable antelope, gemsbok and eland. At the Asian Waterhole, there are water buffalo, Indian sambar deer and Turkomen markhor. Cost is $96.50 per person and includes park admission.

Tour 3 (3 1/2 hours) and visits all of the areas above. Cost is $116.50 per person.

KIDS RESTRICTIONS: For safety reasons, children younger than 8 years of age are not permitted. Children ages 8 through 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. A maximum of two children per adult is allowed.

CARAVAN TIPS: Space on the trucks is limited. A monopod is allowed, but tripods and bulky camera equipment are not. Sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat are highly recommended.

INFORMATION: Reservations are required for photo caravans. Information: (760) 738-5049. General information on the animal park: (760) 747-8702; www.sandiegozoo.org.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- color) Rhinos came into tight focus for tourists on a photo caravan at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

(2) Open, stake-bed trucks are the conveyance for those taking a photo safari through the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Box: IF YOU GO (see text)
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 9, 2001
Words:1055
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