The last male northern white rhino was euthanized last Monday after the visible suffering of a degenerative illness made him unable to stand and caused him terrible skin wounds. “Sudan”, also nicknamed “the gentle giant”, was put down at the age of 45 after surviving a near extinction in the 1970’s, conforming to the average lifespan of the northern white rhino in the wild of 40 years.
After being in Dvůr Králové Zoo (Czech Republic), which still owns Sudan’s offspring, the rhino was transported back to Africa. He lived in the Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya, a 90,000-acre not-for-profit wildlife conservancy in Central Kenya’s Laikipia County, which is also a sanctuary for great apes and generates income through wildlife tourism.
The only northern white rhinos left are Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter, Najin and Fatu, two females protected round-the-clock by armed guards.
The northern white rhino is a subspecies of white rhinos in East and Central Africa, and the third largest African animal after the elephant and the hippo.
The species that was once abundant became extinct in the wild almost 20 years ago due to the illegal hunting in the area, which caused a capture of the species and the survivors to be removed from the wild in 1975.
“Uncontrolled hunting in the colonial era and poaching for their horns… has destroyed the northern white rhino.”
Sudan was a charismatic rhino whose death saddened the Ol Pejeta community. Elodie Sampere, a representative for Ol Pejeta said “He was a gentle giant, his personality was just amazing and given his size, a lot of people were afraid of him. But there was nothing mean about him”.
Richard Vigne, Ol Pejeta’s chief executive added: “We on Ol Pejeta are all saddened by Sudan’s death, 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”.
Uncontrolled hunting in the colonial era and poaching for their horns, which is still being practised, has destroyed the northern white rhino and threatens many other rhino species. Happily, the rhino species as a whole is not endangered, and the southern white rhino survives its relative with a population of approximately 20,000 rhinos.
With the hope of saving the species from extinction, genetic material was collected from Sudan before he was euthanized. Experts are considering investing in advanced cellular technologies and IVF to continue the northern white rhino line. There are multiple alternatives such as artificially inseminating one of the two females left, or producing embryos with older collections of eggs by implanting them in a surrogate female southern white rhino, probably producing a genetically engineered baby rhino hybrid of both species. Nevertheless, this idea has been criticised as well, as both females left are too old and probably incapable of reproduction and the IVF techniques have not yet been proved on rhinos. Furthermore, some think the high cost of £7.1 million should not be invested in saving the northern white rhino but on protecting the species that are left and putting an end to poaching practices, which appeal mostly to Asian countries that use the horn for traditional medicine and to demonstrate social status. In Asia, there are approximately only 3,500 rhino population left due to poaching.