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The Last Male Standing: Saving the Northern White Rhino

Sudan is the last male northern white rhino in the world. Can anything save the subspecies from extinction?

Sudan is the last male northern white rhino in the world. Photo by Ol Pejeta. 
Sudan is the last male northern white rhino in the world. Photo by Ol Pejeta.

In 2009, four of the world’s last northern white rhinos – Najin, Fatu, Sudan and Suni – were relocated from Dvur Kralove Zoo in Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya. Alongside the northern white rhinos, the 90,000-acre conservancy is also home to 106 black rhinos (which are also critically endangered) and 20 southern white rhinos.

When Suni died last year, Sudan was left as the only male northern white rhino – not just in the conservancy, but in the world.

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Feeding time. Photo by Erico Hiller.

Northern white rhinos are perilously close to extinction with just five left and none in the wild. Aside from the obvious danger of the subspecies dying out without breeding, there is also the ever-present risk of poaching.

In Asia, rhino horn is considered to have powerful, healing properties and has become as lucrative as street drugs, with a similar distribution network. Poachers are equipped with guns, helicopters and night-vision goggles, and are willing to take huge risks for the sizable reward.

In an effort to protect the last northern white rhinos, armed guards stand by 24 hours a day, risking their lives to save the species. The ‘Rhino Rangers’, as they have been dubbed, are an elite section of the Kenyan Police rangers, armed with equipment such as GPS trackers and tracking and support dogs. Aside from protecting Sudan from poachers, the rangers must also make sure he is eating and getting enough exercise.

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Sudan with keeper Mohammed. Photo by Jan Stejskal.

Unsurprisingly, this is an expensive service and the conservancy cannot fund it indefinitely, particularly with tourism in Kenya suffering due to fears of both Ebola (though Kenya has had no cases of the virus) and instability (though the affected areas are far from safari destinations).

However, over the past couple of months the cause has stepped into the international spotlight and thousands of pounds have been donated as a result. The conservancy needs to raise £75,000 to afford the rhinos’ protection for six more months.

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Thousands of pounds have been donated to help save the last northern white rhinos from extinction. Photo by Ol Pejeta.

Even if the rhinos escape poaching, they will not survive as a species unless they breed. Sudan is 42, which makes him elderly in rhino years. His age means it was always going to be difficult for him to mate either of the females, and a low sperm count made things even more difficult.

The conservancy have confirmed that they have given up on efforts to encourage Sudan to mate and that even a southern white rhino cross-bred offspring is unlikely, due to the age of Najin and reproductive problems with Fatu.

Sudan and his species are on the cusp of extinction. Photo by Jan Stejskal.
Sudan and his species are on the cusp of extinction. Photo by Jan Stejskal.

Going forward, the plan is to look at artificial methods of reproduction, such as in vitro fertilisation (which has never been achieved with rhinos to date); artificial insemination (using a southern white rhino if Fatu’s problems persist); and cell culture to preserve the rhinos’ DNA for possible future use. From late June, the conservancy will start working with vets from South Africa and Czech Republic to begin collecting as much of Sudan’s semen as possible and to start experimenting with the various artificial methods of reproduction. This process has been estimated to take around two years and to cost approximately US$800,000.

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The last male standing. Photo by Ol Pejeta.

In the 1960s, there were over 2,000 northern white rhinos in the wild, but poaching has all but annihilated the subspecies: by the 1980s, there were just 15. Today, there are five. And with Sudan the only male, the future is not looking too bright for the northern white rhinos.

Help save the northern white rhinos and donate here.