After Last Male's Death, Is the Northern White Rhino Doomed?

Two females remain at the conservancy in Kenya.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 20 Mar 2018, 17:48 GMT
Wildlife ranger Zacharia Mutai comforts Sudan, the last living male Northern White Rhino left on the ...
Wildlife ranger Zacharia Mutai comforts Sudan, the last living male Northern White Rhino left on the planet, moments before he passed away March 19, 2018 at Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.
Photograph by Ami Vitale, National Geographic Creative

Conservationists were expecting the death of Sudan, the world's last remaining male northern white rhinoceros. But when he died on Monday night, the news was met with international dismay.

The 45-year-old male rhino had been living under armed guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Earlier this month, Sudan developed an infection on his back right leg. He had already been suffering from age-related complications, and the infection worsened his condition.

Now, only two female northern white rhinos remain at the conservancy—the last of their kind on Earth.

Is All Hope Lost?

Sudan's death is largely seen as the final signature on the species' death warrant.

There was a major conservation push to help Sudan produce an offspring. In one last ditch effort to raise money for the rhino's care, conservationists created a Tinder profile for Sudan.

Documenting Sudan and the species decline was a major project for National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale.

"Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind," Vitale wrote in an Instagram post sharing the news.

Vitale was with Sudan when the rhino was transferred from a zoo in the Czech Republic to the Kenya reserve in 2009. It was thought that the African climate and having more room to roam would stimulate the rhinos to breed. 

Because he and the two remaining females are past viable reproductive age, scientists were attempting to breed a new rhino in a lab.

Sex cells were harvested from the living northern white rhinos, and scientists are hoping to use IVF to impregnate southern white rhino surrogates. By conservative estimates, the technology to pull this off is still roughly ten years from being perfected.

Rhinos in Africa

In 2014, there were only seven of the sub species on the planet—all in zoos. By the summer of 2015, the number had dwindled to four; a few months later there were only three.

But when the northern white rhino population began to decline, it was lightning fast.

In Sudan's last days, rangers at Ol Pejeta kept the three rhinos under 24/7 armed guard. Despite the species precipitous conservation status, the animals face an intense threat from poaching.

Like elephants, rhinos in Africa are aggressively hunted for their lucrative horns and skin.

A platoon of armed guards watch over Sudan, a northern white rhinoceros that was the last male of its kind.

“Sudan's death is a tragic example of Africa losing its heritage. How did we get here? How will we explain this to the next generation of Africans,” said Kaddu Sebunya, African Wildlife Foundation’s President, in a statement.

In 2013, another rhino subspecies, the western black rhino, was declared extinct. The eastern black rhino, numbering around a thousand, could be the next rhino species facing extinction.

Conservationists are continuing to focus on saving this species in addition to the southern white rhino, a species numbering around 20,000.

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