How We Brought The Southern White Rhino Back From The Brink Of Extinction

The southern white rhino was so very close to extinction, but conservationists brought them back. JONATHAN PLEDGER/Shutterstock

The death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, has made waves around the world. With just two females surviving, it seems that little can be done to stop the creatures from sliding into extinction.

But this isn’t the first time that white rhinos have stared death in the face. There may be some 20,000 southern white rhino roaming the savanna across Africa today, and we often can’t imagine the continent without them. Yet it’s easy to forget just how close these magnificent animals were to the edge of extinction, too.


At the beginning of the 20th century, it is thought that there were as few as 20 southern white rhino surviving on a small reserve in South Africa. Despite having once wandered widely throughout southern Africa, the expansion of cattle herding along with extensive hunting and poaching decimated their numbers during the Victorian era.

A crash (the collective noun!) of rhinos in Hluhluwe-iMofolozi Park, which now has the highest density of rhino in the world. Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons

Located in the south-east of South Africa, Hluhluwe-iMofolozi Park is thought to be the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in all of Africa, and all populations of southern white rhino around today are descended from the tiny remnant group that clung on in this corner of the continent.

It wasn’t, however, until the 1950s and '60s that real efforts to bring the southern white rhino back from the brink began. Spearheaded by the determined conservationist Ian Player, the project was named Operation Rhino, and would become one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world.

What began was years of careful management, breeding, and protection of the remaining white rhino, which were then translocated to other reserves, parks, and even countries. And it was wildly successful.

From just 20 southern white rhino, there are now more than 20,000. JONATHAN PLEDGER/Shutterstock

 By 1997, it was estimated there were 8,466 white rhino on the African continent, and as of 2010 this number has more than doubled to 20,160 wild animals. Most of these still live in South Africa – 18,800 by the last count – which has continued to do a striking job of protecting them, but populations now exist in at least seven other African countries, including some that were once home to the northern white rhino. 

When the recovery of species from such small numbers is brought up, there is often talk of inbreeding, and how damaging for a species this can be. But there are plenty of examples where animals have managed to escape the jaws of extinction from pitifully small populations and are now, relatively speaking, thriving.

The northern elephant seal was once hunted so extensively during the Victorian era that only 20 were thought to have survived by the end of the 19 century. Nowadays, there are as many as 239,000 of the pinnipeds cruising the west coast of the Americas, with their population still thought to be increasing. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, all 250 black robins alive today can trace their ancestry back to a single female known as Old Blue, who single-handedly saved the entire species.  

There were once only a few dozen northern elephant seals in the world, now there are hundreds of thousands. Radoslaw Lecyk/Shutterstock

Their genetic health is likely compromised to a certain degree, but it goes to show how extraordinary recoveries can – and do – occur. As the last few northern white rhinos fizzle out, there is hope on the horizon of using IVF to bring them back.


But let’s also give a thought to two other species of rhino, the Javan and Sumatran, of which there are now most likely less than 50 left of each. If we can bring the southern white back from just 20 individuals, then it should be possible to do the same for these poor beleaguered rhinoceroses, they just need more money, determination, and government action.

There fewer than 100 Sumatran rhino left, spread across Southeast Asia. We can save them. International Rhino Foundation/Wikimedia Commons


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