The northern white rhinoceros is now on the brink of extinction following the death of Suni, a 34-year-old male living at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was the last male not considered to be too old to breed, and there are now only six northern white rhinos left on the planet. Suni was discovered dead in his boma (enclosure) on Friday, October 17. A statement from the Conservancy noted that he appears to have died of natural causes; not at the hands of poachers. An autopsy to determine the cause of death has been planned. Northern white rhinos are predicted to live about 40-50 years, but Suni’s father also died of natural causes in his mid-30s.
Suni was the first northern white rhino born in captivity in 1980 at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. He and three others considered to be reproductively viable moved to Ol Pejeta in 2009, as it was believed that a more natural environment would make it easier for them to breed. At the time, there were only eight northern white rhinos, and conservationists were desperate to help save the subspecies. Sadly, the rhinos did not breed naturally, and even efforts to assist breeding were unable to yield a calf.
Northern white rhinos have had a historically small range after separating from the southern whites. They lived in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, and Uganda.
While Suni might not have been killed directly by poachers, humans have played a significant role in the decline of his subspecies. There were over 2,000 wild northern white rhinos in 1960, but habitat destruction and poaching shrunk that number down to only 15 by the end of the 1980s. Dedicated conservation efforts temporarily revived the populations, but the poachers came back stronger.
The last four wild northern white rhinos at Garamba National Park in DRC were slated to be moved to a protected park in Kenya, but were poached before the transfer could take place. Northern whites were declared extinct in the wild in 2008. Ol Pejeta described the northern white’s decline as “a sorry testament to the greed of the human race.”
The tragic loss of Suni has eliminated a lot of hope that the subspecies could be recovered, though conservationists at Ol Pejeta have not given up hope yet. They have frozen sperm from Suni and healthy males in the past and will continue to try to breed the females. If that doesn’t work, they will attempt to breed the northern white females with southern white males. Though this is not ideal, it will help keep the genetic diversity.
Though the world could be about 10 years out from seeing the last of the northern white rhinos die out, the southern population is doing quite well. Southerns have been previously believed to be extinct, but a small group (under 100) was found in 1895. Wild-born southerns breed extremely well in captivity, and there are now over 17,000 southern white rhinos under protection in Africa.