The last male northern white rhino has died.
This means that only two female northern white rhino are now known to exist and as the current situation stands, the subspecies is set to go extinct. All hopes will now be pinned on using IVF to bring the rhino back from extinction, although the technology is yet to prove its worth.
The last male, named Sudan, was living out his years at the Ol Pajeta Conservancy, Kenya, after having moved there from a Czech zoo in 2009. At 45 years old, he was considered an old man, but after contracting an infection in his back right leg the odds really were stacked against him. In the end, it was decided that the best option for the welfare of Sudan was to euthanize him.
“We on Ol Pejeta are all saddened by Sudan’s death,” said Richard Vigne, the CEO of Ol Pajeta. “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 worldwide.”
Mud, mud, glorious mud...
When Sudan was caught in the wild in 1973, it was thought that 500 wild northern white rhino survived, with a few dozen in captivity. Now there are just two.
This might not be the end, though. There are massive efforts to use the 20,000 or so southern white rhino to save their northern cousins. Before he died, researchers froze samples of Sudan’s DNA, including his valuable sperm. The plan is to use IVF to bring the subspecies back from extinction, implanting embryos created with eggs from the two surviving females into surrogate southern white rhinos to produce calves. As this has never been successfully done with rhinos before, the clock is now ticking.
To look at, most would be hard pushed to tell the difference between a northern and a southern white rhino. The northern variety is smaller on average, with a straighter and more level back than those in the south. They also have a distinctively shaped skull, which is less concave and a lot flatter, and they have hairier ears and tails. Their dentition is also distinct from the southern variety.
These morphological differences, and genetic evidence to suggest that the two populations have been separated for at least a million years, has led to some suggesting that the northern and southern rhino should actually be classed as distinct species in their own right. If so, it means there are profound implications for the animal’s conservation, making the loss of Sudan all the more significant and tragic.
While the southern white rhino is one of conservation's biggest success stories – at one point there was as few as 15 individuals – the decimation of the northern white rhino is one of embarrassment. Because of where the northern ones resided, in countries that have experienced little stability over the last century, they were more heavily targeted by poachers. Considered part of the same population as the southern rhino, little action was taken when it was needed.
This resulted in the species going extinct in the wild, with all hopes pinned on the few that remained in captivity. Eventually, the four northern white rhinos left at a zoo in the Czech Republic, which included Sudan's daughter and granddaughter, were moved to Kenya where they were given 24-hour armed protection. Now they are the last survivors.
With all efforts now being plunged into IVF, the technology could not only be used to save the northern white rhino but also the critically endangered Javan and Sumatran rhino, which are also very close to extinction.