While routinely checking on the four northern white rhinos that roam the 90,000 acres at Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy the rangers found that one of their males, Suni, had died of natural causes.
At 34, Suni had managed to reach the same age as his father before him, and it is not considered a particularly premature age to go. But while there was great relief that this "gentle giant" hadn't fallen prey to poachers, news of his death on Friday has catastrophic implications: there are now only six of this particular subspecies of rhino in existence. Even more worryingly, Suni was considered to be the last breeder. The only other male, Sudan, who is also at Ol Pejeta, is too old and weak to mate.
"It came as a huge surprise – we always thought Sudan would be the first one to go. Suni was in really good shape," says Ol Pejeta's Elodie Sampéré, on the phone from Kenya. "It was a big shock to everybody. Suni was very cool, he had a really good personality and was playful. The rangers that looked after him on a day-to-day basis are just distraught. We all are."
Animals in decline
Animals in decline
1/8 Harbour seal (Phoca vitulina)
Where: Orkney Islands. What: Between 2001-2006, numbers in Orkney declined by 40 per cent. Why: epidemics of the phocine distemper virus are thought to have caused major declines, but the killing of seals in the Moray Firth to protect salmon farms may have an impact.
2/8 African lion (Panthera leo)
Where: Ghana. What: In Ghana’s Mole National Park, lion numbers have declined by more than 90 per cent in 40 years. Why: local conflicts are thought to have contributed to the slaughter of lions and are a worrying example of the status of the animal in Western and Central Africa.
3/8 Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Where: Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Costa Rica. What: Numbers are down in both the Atlantic and Pacific. It declined by 95 per cent between 1989-2002 in Costa Rica. Why: mainly due to them being caught as bycatch, but they’ve also been affected by local developments.
4/8 Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)
Where: South Atlantic. What: A rapid decline. One population, from Bird Island, South Georgia, declined by 50 per cent between 1972-2010, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Why: being caught in various commercial longline fisheries.
5/8 Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica)
Where: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. What: fall in populations has been dramatic. In the early 1990s numbers were over a million, but are now estimated to be around 50,000. Why: the break up of the former USSR led to uncontrolled hunting. Increased rural poverty means the species is hunted for its meat
6/8 Swordfish (Xiphias gladius)
Where: found worldwide in tropical, subtropical and temperate seas. Why: at risk from overfishing and as a target in recreational fishing. A significant number of swordfish are also caught by illegal driftnet fisheries in the Mediterranean
7/8 Argali Sheep (Ovis mammon)
Where: Central and Southern Asian mountains,usually at 3,000-5,000 metres altitude. Why: domesticated herds of sheep competing for grazing grounds. Over-hunting and poaching.
8/8 Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)
Where: the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea to South Africa and to the Tuamoto Islands (Polynesia), north to the Ryukyu Islands (south-west Japan), and south to New Caledonia. Why: Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing and trading of the species
Four rhinos had arrived at the conservancy in 2009, travelling by plane and truck, where it was hoped the animals would breed (the main reason for their decline is that they are targeted by poachers, who sell their horns to Asia to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, despite their having no proven medicinal benefits whatsoever). So far, unfortunately, reproduction just hasn't happened.
So what now for the future of the northern white rhino? Can it be brought back from the brink of extinction?
Sampéré tells me that the world's leading experts are meeting this week to discuss how best to deal with this latest blow. She suspects that the main objective will now be to create a hybrid species, mating a female northern white with a male southern white. As she says: "Having a hybrid rhino is better than not having one at all." And while artificial insemination is a possibility, it is hugely expensive and so far has proved unsuccessful.
So it means that the three rhinos at Ol Pejeta (Sudan and two females, Najin and Fatu) make up half the entire subspecies. (There are also two females in San Diego, while one lives in the Czech Republic.) With such few companions, they are now considered among the loneliest animals on the planet.
Other species that have few friends include the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, of which there are just four that we know of. There are thought to be only 30 Amur leopards roaming the east of Russia. Fewer than 100 vaquitas, a type of mini porpoise, remain. Around 100 Seychelles sheath-tailed bats. I could go on and on, the figures are grim. There are far too many casualties to mention.
When there were only three male Mangarahara cichlids (a Madagascan fish) believed to be left, an appeal by London Zoo to find some female companions for them resulted in an additional 18 being discovered, which is about the only encouraging story around.
And who can forget the rarest creature of all, the aptly named Lonesome George, who until his death in 2012 wandered the Galapagos Islands, the only Pinta Island tortoise in existence?
"A species can become biologically extinct even when a few individuals remain," says Will Travers, the president of Born Free. "Put in crude terms, the chances of individuals meeting up and procreating becomes just too infrequent to sustain the species. It's impossible to put a number on this, but the northern white rhino may have reached the point of no return."
It might well be too late for them. But, encouragingly, Sampéré says that one of their female rhinos mated with a southern white male just last week, meaning a hybrid might be a possibility. So, fingers crossed, we'll be hearing the pitter-patter of, well, not so tiny feet soon.Reuse content