Can We Save Rhinos? – Exit of the last male Northern White Rhino
The Northern White Rhino is a subspecies of the white rhino, the other being the southern white rhino. It was formerly found in East and Central Africa, south of the Sahara. They are known to graze in the grasslands and the Savannah woodlands.
Due to years of widespread poaching and civil war in their home range, this subspecies has been classified as functionally extinct with only two surviving female rhinos belonging to the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic and residing in the Ol Pejata Conservancy in Kenya.
The last standing male rhino of these species died on 19th March 2018 at the age of 45 after suffering from age-related complications. He was known as Sudan and was brought to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy from Dvur Kralove Zoo in 2009 with three others. This was an effort to provide them with a more native habitat and encourage them to breed as all effort at the zoo been futile.
Rhino poaching has been on the rise over the years and the declined in the number of rhinos has made the process more intense. There is a high demand for the rhino horn especially in Asia, particularly in Vietnam. The Horn is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and also as a status symbol to showcase someone’s wealth and success.
This has led to organizations investing heavily in the anti-poaching mechanism, on the other hand, poachers are being supplied with sophisticated equipment by criminal gangs to track and kill rhinos. They normally use tranquillizer guns to bring the rhino down and hack off its horn leaving the rhino to wake up and breed to death.
Sudan – the last male northern rhino
Sudan was captured in Shambe, in the country of Sudan among other 6 rhinos by animals trappers at the age of two. They were then shipped to Dvur Kralove Zoo for the zoo’s Northern White Rhino collection. Sudan fathered three calves while in the Czech Republic and became a grandfather to one.
By the year 2000, no more rhino calves were being born in the world and the second last male northern rhino Angalifu who lived in the San Diego Safari Zoo died in 14th December 2014 leaving Sudan as the only fertile male species of his kind in the world.
In an effort to save the subspecies, specialist met and decided to move Sudan and other three northern white rhinos to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya for a “Last Chance to Survive”breeding program. The other three include a male Suni who died in 2014 of natural causes, two females Najin and Fatu who were Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter respectively.
At the Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Sudan, Suni, Najin and Fatu were brought to the conservancy to provide a natural habitat and encourage them to breed. At the conservancy, they had a dedicated 24 hrs armed security, 700 acres of space and a nutritious diet supplemented with fresh vegetables. The protection also includes; horn-embedded transmitters, watchtowers, electric fence, drones and guard dogs.
There was much hope when Suni was seen mating with Najin in 2012 but as the gestation period of the rhino came to an end(16 months), Najin was not pregnant. As time past, they tried to introduce a southern white rhino to Najin and Fatu to try to preserve some genes of this subspecies but it still turned out unsuccessful.
In October 2014, there was a big blow on this program as Suni dead of natural causes leaving only Sudan as the only male capable of reproduction in the world. The year 2015 was also a tough year for the northern white rhino as the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic lost Nabire and the San Diego zoo lost Norah leaving only Sudan, Najin and Fatu as the only remaining subspecies in the world. It was still in the same year that the vets discovered that the remaining female is not capable of natural reproduction and Sudan’s sperm count was low due to his age.
On 19th March 2018, Sudan died at age 45. He had been suffering from health-related issues with a series of infections. When his condition worsens to the point he was not able to stand and was suffering a great deal, a decision was made to euthanize him by the veterinary team.
What is left for these subspecies?
Though humans are to take full blame for extinct of these subspecies that has lived on this planet for a thousand years, there is hope that artificially assisted reproduction is possible. The future of the subspecies lies in the development of in-vitro fertilization techniques and stem cell technology that is a very costly and complicated procedure that has not being done on rhinos before.
This involves safely removing eggs cells from the remaining two females, and fertilize them with semen previously collected from the male northern white rhinos and insert the resulting embryo into female southern white rhinos who will act as surrogates.
This goes without having risks as it has never been done before. The estimated cost of IVF from development, trials, implantation and creation of a viable breeding herd could cost as much as $9 million.
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy together with the Dvur Karlove Zoo are trying to raise money for the project with a GoFundMe campaign called ‘Make a Rhino’. You can also donate in memory of Sudan at the Ol Pejeta website to save these species before it is too late.