Sudan: The last male northern white rhino and a symbol of endangered species conservation

Animal's demise brings species one step closer to extinction; conservationists say: ‘We should have done better’

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 20 March 2018 12:12 GMT
Sudan, the last male white rhino, dies

After years of attempts to save the northern white rhino from extinction, Sudan – the last surviving male of the species – has died.

The 45-year-old rhino died at his home in Kenya after suffering from “age-related complications”, and with him the hope for his species’ survival diminished even further.

Sudan’s demise means that extinction is likely only a matter of time. Not only are both remaining individuals female, neither is capable of carrying a baby to term.

As his name suggests, Sudan was born in the country now known as South Sudan, at a time when northern white rhinos still numbered in the hundreds.

While Sudan was shipped to Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic when he was just three years old, other northern white rhinos in his home country were not so lucky.

Conflict in Sudan and parts of central Africa aggravated rhino poaching activities and caused their numbers to plummet.

By the time Sudan and two female rhinos were transferred to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in a last-ditch effort to save the species, they were some of the only surviving northern white rhinos in the world.

Unfortunately, despite efforts to use the remaining rhinos to revive the species, they failed to breed.

Sudan spent his final years under constant armed guard to protect him from the ever-present threat of poaching.

“This is a sad moment. I wouldn’t say it was a wake-up call because we saw it coming, and we should have done better,” Paul Masela, wildlife manager at Kenya Wildlife Services, told The Independent.

“It’s clear that our greed has a major impact on species, and to actually witness right in front of our eyes this extinction happening is an incredible phenomenon, particularly as we know how it has come about.”

The demand for rhino horn in Asian countries has led to a huge escalation in poaching in Africa, and has proven catastrophic for rhinos. Despite stringent international laws banning the trade in their horns, thousands of rhinos have been killed in the past decade.

The northern white rhino is one of the two subspecies of the white rhinoceros, the other being the southern white rhino.

After dipping to only 50 individuals at its lowest point, the population of southern white rhinos has now recovered to around 20,000.

Despite the tragedy of Sudan’s death, there is still hope among those caring for the remaining northern whites that this sub-species could also be brought back from the brink of extinction.

“There is a possibility that it could be saved through artificial reproductive techniques – in particular, in vitro fertilisation,” Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s CEO Richard Vigne told The Independent.

While there is a slim chance that fertilised northern white eggs could be implanted in a southern white rhino mother, this is reliant on developing techniques that have never before been applied in rhinos.

Genetic material, sperm and eggs taken from Sudan and the two remaining females, Najin and Fatu, have been collected with the hope that technological advances could one day make these dreams a reality.

Tragic moment rhino calf tries to suckle his poached mum

“It may prove to be impossible in rhinos, and it does depend on the two remaining females remaining alive,” said Mr Vigne.

Though Mr Vigne hopes the attention Sudan’s case has received will bring support for such efforts, for many in the conservation community the death of Sudan is a time to consider how we can best protect other threatened species.

Heather Sohl, chief adviser for wildlife at conservation charity WWF said: “The death of Sudan is heartbreaking. We’re seeing the extinction of the northern white rhino happen right before our eyes, driven by the insatiable demand for their horns.

“To ensure other wildlife doesn’t suffer this fate, we need strong action such as cutting demand, cracking down on corruption and improving enforcement.”

Mr Masela says he is already seeing the demise of Sudan provoke a strong reaction among fellow conservationists, and he hopes it will catalyse efforts to preserve Africa’s remaining rhinos.

“It has invoked the resolve to behave much better, increase protection and be much more alert and aware,” said Mr Masela.

“There is a lot of anger, and I think it will re-energise us and make sure that for the southern sub-species we will offer much better protection, to make sure we don’t go the same route.”

“Unfortunately, what has happened to the northern whites is a symbol of what is happening to thousands of other species across the planet as a result of human exploitation,” said Mr Vigne.

“The northern white rhino stands as a symbol to that, and a sign that if the way we consume doesn’t change, then sooner or later we are going to destroy the planet and the ecological processes on which we as humans depend. For me, that is the key message.”

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