Oldest black rhino in North America celebrates 45th birthday at San Francisco Zoo

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SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU/AP) — The San Francisco Zoo is celebrating the 45th birthday of the oldest black rhinoceros in North America.

The exact date of Elly's birth isn't known, as she was born in the wild. But she has lived at the zoo since April 1974 and is one of their most prized animals. 

Elly has given birth to 14 calves, helping preserve a critically endangered species that numbered 200,000 before 1960 throughout parts of Africa.

Elly loves beets, corn and bananas. She shares a habitat with grandson Boone.

Zoo curator Jim Nappi says the number has dwindled to 3,000 to 5,000, due to poaching. The rhino horns are poached for sale as aphrodisiacs, for which there is no scientific proof that it works, and for dagger handles.  

“All rhino species are in really poor shape. They're critically endangered as is the case with the black rhinos behind me here,” Nappi said at the zoo. 

That includes the zoo's Indian rhino and every other rhino species. There are only three northern white rhinos left on Earth.

He says that the second-oldest black rhino in North America, if still alive, is about 38 years old and lives in Miami. There are about 60 black rhinos in North America zoos.

Saving the rhinos’ genetic material and stem cells has become critical if there’s any hope of cloning them.

“That's how desperate it is,” Nappi said. “That we're now relying on, you know, the thought of can we make a Wooly Mammoth out of DNA that we find? Well, that's what we're relying on for rhinos and rhinos are alive today.”

Melissa Rosenstein, spent New Year’s Day at the zoo with her sister and her two young children.

“I think it's really important for them to be able to see the animals and get to see things that they otherwise wouldn’t see,” Rosenstein said. “It's terrifying. Certainly I think it's important to realize that animals are part of this Earth and they deserve protection and we have to be careful of what we do and how human activities are affecting animals."