The northern white rhinoceros is now one step closer to extinction after the death of the last remaining male of the subspecies this week.
Named Sudan, the 45-year-old rhino had been ill for some time, and was receiving treatment for serious skin infections and age-related health problems. When Sudan deteriorated over the course of the week, a team of veterinarians made the difficult decision to euthanize him.
During his life, Sudan was able to help his species survive by fathering two female rhinos at Dvur Kralove Zoo, where he spent most of his life. His last years were spent living in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, protected 24/7 by armed guards.
“We on Ol Pejeta are all saddened by Sudan’s death. He was a great ambassador for his species and will be remembered for the work he did to raise awareness globally of the plight facing not only rhinos, but also the many thousands of other species facing extinction as a result of unsustainable human activity. One day, his demise will hopefully be seen as a seminal moment for conservationists world wide,” said Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta.
With only two females left in the world, Sudan’s daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu, this precious subspecies has an uncertain future. With genetic material collected from Sudan, researchers hope to use in vitro fertilisation to combine the eggs from these two females with stored semen, and use southern white rhino females as surrogate mothers. This procedure has never been tried in rhinos before and may cost up to US$9 million. But that’s a small price to pay to save this majestic subspecies.
The northern white rhino was heavily poached in the 1970s and 80s, leaving only 20-30 individuals living in Garamba National Park. During periods of human conflict in this area in the ’90s and 2000s, these animals were all wiped out and the subspecies was considered extinct in the wild.
In 2009, the last four northern white rhinos were moved to Ol Pejeta from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. They were kept under 24 hour armed guide and carefully cared for by experts in nutrition and behavior, but failed to breed. Tests later discovered that both females were unable to reproduce naturally.
The five remaining species of rhino are all considered threatened and are targeted by poachers for their horns, an industry which is worth almost as much as the global trade in narcotics.
In the last decade, more than 7,245 rhinos in Africa have been killed due to poaching. In 2017, 1,028 rhino were poached in South Africa alone- meaning nearly three rhinos were killed every day.
Although over the last two years there has been a slight decrease in the number of rhinos poached in South Africa, the amount of animals lost is still far too high. Poachers are becoming more sophisticated and are moving into other countries in Africa that don’t have the ability to protect their wildlife to the extent that South Africa has been able to.
Organizations like Save the Rhino are working hard on many levels to protect these incredible animals, from training rangers and equipping them with the the tools to fight back to finding safe habitats for the rhinos to live in.
Still, the future looks bleak for the northern white.
“Realistically, we are looking at these animals dying in the next decade or so,” said George Paul, deputy veterinarian at Ol Pejeta. “But hopefully, using artificial methods of reproduction, we might be able to bring them back in the future. This might mean that it will happen when the current animals are already deceased, but it could happen.”