On March 19, the world’s last male Northern White Rhinoceros, Sudan, died in captivity. After being poached to oblivion in the last century, only two Northern White Rhinoceroses remain – and they’re both female. What does that mean for the survival of the species?
The Northern White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) was declared ‘Critically Endangered (Possibly extinct in the wild)’ in 2011, with no sightings of a wild animal since August of that year. On Monday, Sudan, the last surviving male in captivity, was put down after battling pain, skin wounds and illness that crippled the ‘gentle giant’ and even prevented him from walking.
Most of Sudan’s life was spent in a Czech zoo, where he wore down his horn so much from rubbing it against the bars of his enclosure that it was eventually cut off. In 2009, Sudan was shifted to the Ol Pejeta Conservatory in Kenya. After the move, armed guards patrolled the 350 square kilometre park at all hours of the day, protecting him from poachers.
The threat of poaching has been consistent for the last few decades. The horn of the rhinoceros is made from keratin, a protein that makes up your hair and fingernails, though their chemical composition is slightly different. Due to unfounded beliefs that the horn of the rhinoceros is a cure for all sorts of ailments, the price for selling horns skyrocketed to almost $100,000 a kilogram.
With the death of Sudan, is the species doomed?
Functionally, yes. With only two females left in captivity, the northern white rhino is functionally extinct. That’s the sad, honest truth of the matter.
However, the species has a close relative – the southern white rhino – and scientists have been working at a way to artificially inseminate females of that species to produce more northern whites. Right now, the technology to keep the species alive, artificially, just doesn’t exist. Even if it did, the expenses may be too high to justify.
Eggs from the two remaining females – both descendants of Sudan – and Sudan’s sperm may still be able to revive the species. It doesn’t look good though.
Looking back at the timeline of the many rhinoceros species that once roamed Africa is a story of woe and one that most obviously demonstrates the devastating effects of human greed and globalisation. Rhinoceros ancestors have wandered the plains of the Earth for millions of years and until we started hunting them down and slowly encroaching on their natural habitat, they had no real predators. They were safe. Greed has taken that from them.
With the death of Sudan, the twilight of the Northern White Rhinoceros has fallen over the African savannah.
We messed up.