Earlier this month, Nola, a 41-year-old female northern white rhinoceros was euthanised by staff at the San Diego Zoo following a bacterial infection. The death has stoked fears that the subspecies is doomed for extinction.
On its Facebook page, the zoo wrote: “This is a very difficult loss for the animal care staff who worked with her, our volunteers, guests, and to her species worldwide. Let this be a warning of what is happening to wildlife everywhere.”
Perhaps the biggest irony of this story is that it breaks amidst speculation of boffins resurrecting the woolly mammoth from the abyss of extinction, signifying a huge chasm between measures to protect wildlife species currently on the critically endangered list and scientists pushing the boundaries of genetics into science fiction theatre.
There are now just three northern white rhinos left in existence and all three are in captivity. They are Sudan, a 42-year old male, Fatu and Najin, two females.
In 2009, all three were transferred from the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic to their current residence, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where all three share the same 300-hectare enclosure. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is also home to 106 black rhinos, making it the biggest rhino conservancy in east Africa.
It was hoped that once they arrived they would breed, but so far attempts have been unsuccessful. Continuing the lineage is an increasingly unlikely as Sudan’s sperm count is low and his ability to mount the females is practically non-existent as his back legs are weak from old age.
The life expectancy for white rhinos in the wild is 40-50 years and time is rapidly running out. The CEO of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Richard Vigne, said: “Sudan is an old animal as far as rhinos are concerned – and he’s going to die soon. I think that’s the reality.”
Sudan, named after the country in which he was born, was caught in the Shambe region when he was just a one-year-old and has spent almost his entire life in captivity where breeding rhinos has historically witnessed little success.
He has a regular stream of visitors on a daily basis but is kept under armed guard 24/7 and has had his horn purposely filed down to reduce the threat posed by illegal poachers.
Mohamed Doyo, a ranger at the 135 sq mile Ol Pejeta Conservancy, told The Guardian newspaper: “It is sad what human greed has done and now we must keep watch every minute because it would be unimaginable if the poachers succeeded in killing these last few animals.”
Rhinos have few natural predators in the wild, a dramatic rise in poaching is almost exclusively the driving force behind the precipitous decline in the number of rhinos in the wild worldwide.
A truth that Richard Vigne doesn’t shy away from: “Humans are 100% to blame for what’s happened to rhino populations across the planet,” he says.
In 1900, there were approximately half a million rhinos in the wild in Africa and Asia. By 1970, that figure had dropped to just 70,000 with many species critically endangered.
By 2011, the western black rhino had been declared extinct, and between 2007 and 2012, rhino poaching increased by an intimidating 5,000%. South Africa alone lost more than 1,000 rhinos to poachers in 2013 which was a 50% increase on the year before, and up from just 13 in 2007.
For the northern white rhino, their population has dwindled from 2,000 in the 1960s to just 15 by 1984 and now, Sudan, remains the last known living male.
This dramatic decline in numbers is almost exclusively due to a demand in the Far East for rhino horns. Although made from keratin, the same material as human toenails, it is believed that rhino horns have medical and healing properties such as curing cancer. There is no scientific basis for such beliefs.
Prices for rhino horns can be as high as $75,000 per kilo which, for many Africans struggling to make a living, is an irresistible temptation and has fuelled a deadly war between amateur poachers and armed conservationist rangers.
On the desperate attempts to save the northern white rhinoceros, Vigne said: “It really came to a head with the death of Suni last year, the other remaining male northern white rhino, who was much younger than Sudan.”
Although Sudan, Fatu and Najin are now considered too old to reproduce naturally, they have had their sex cells harvested in the hope of an IVF procedure with a southern white rhino surrogate.
Southern white rhinos are the second of the two subspecies of white rhino and whilst IVF with a southern white rhino might be successful, it would still effectively mark the extinction of pure blooded northern white rhinos.
The main obstacle standing in the way is that the technology is not yet sufficiently developed to carry out the procedure, and even if it was, it is estimated to cost anything from $1-4 million. You can contribute and help save the northern white rhinoceros at www.gofundme.com/olpejeta.