Sudan, the last known remaining male northern white rhino, died on Monday, March 19th 2018. His death leaves only his daughter and granddaughter as the remaining survivors of the northern white subspecies of rhinoceros. However, some who are eager to save the subspecies are looking to the latest in cellular technology for hope.
The northern white rhino is far rarer than its southern counterpart. Since the 1960s, its numbers have declined sharply from approximately two thousand to almost zero. The BBC reports that southern white rhinos number somewhere between nineteen thousand to twenty-one thousand in total, while Sudan’s passing leaves only two northern white rhinoceroses thought to survive. These two rhinos, Najin, his daughter, and Fatu, his granddaughter, live on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where Sudan lived for the past nine years. The second last male of the northern white subspecies died in 2014. Sudan’s relative old age had caused him a number of health problems and his vet made the decision to euthanise him earlier this week. There are harvested and preserved samples of reproductive materials from different past males of the subspecies which could be used to artificially inseminate Najin and Fatu, but the two female rhinos may not have the capacity to carry a pregnancy to term.
All hope for the northern white rhino is not lost, however. According to the New York Times, a team of scientists from around the world is working together to try to save the northern white rhinos. Genetic material harvested from other males can be used to fertilise Najin’s and Fatu’s eggs, which could then potentially be carried to term by females of the southern white rhinoceros population. What’s more, Sudan’s own genetic material has been stored alongside the other samples and, perhaps, if the white northern rhino population manages to recover, he could once again help to add to its growing numbers.
It’s a slim possibility, to say the least. There are no guarantees of successful pregnancies and there may not be a lot of opportunities to create new offspring. What’s more, even if the strategy succeeds, there are health concerns for individuals born from such a narrow gene pool. The northern white rhino is still very, very far from out of the woods. The threat of extinction is real, and it comes entirely from the actions of human hunters who decimated the subspecies for trophies or for their value in certain schools of Eastern medicine. If these animals manage to make their way back from extinction, this situation should be a severe wakeup call regarding the damage that humans can do to the environment and a sign that we need to change.