Almost the end for Kenya’s northern white rhino
This is what extinction looks like.
No meteor from outer space, no unstoppable pandemic, no heroic, ultimately futile last stand. Instead poor sperm, weak knees and ovarian cysts mark the end of a lifeline cut short by human greed, ignorance and indifference.
With just five northern white rhinos left on earth, the animal’s end is inevitable.
Scientists and conservationists hope that advancements in genetics and in vitro fertilisation might allow for its test tube resurrection in the future, but before that the northern whites will die, one by one, over the next few years.
“We are down to five, so they are very close to extinction, perhaps in a few years,” said Jan Stejskal of the Dvur Kralove Zoo in Czech Republic which, thanks to acquisitions in the 1970s, owns all the remaining northern whites.
“I still believe there is a hope we will be able to save them. The best we can do now is harvest sperm and egg samples for future in vitro fertilisation, and wait until the time the techniques are developed enough to give us a good chance of reproduction,” said Stejskal.
The last living male, named Sudan, is found on a 36 400-hectare reserve of savannah and woodlands in central Kenya, along with two of the remaining females. The other two females live alone in zoos in the Czech Republic and the United States. Two other males – Angalifu and Suni – died last year.
At 43, Sudan is elderly by rhino standards and vets say his sperm is low quality. Nola at San Diego Zoo is also beyond reproductive age while Nabire at Dvur Kralove Zoo is 31, but suffers from ovarian cysts. In Kenya, Najin (25), cannot mate because of her weak hind legs, while her daughter Fatu (14) is infertile.
Modern rhinos have plodded the earth for 26-million years. As recently as the mid-19th century there were over a million in Africa. The last northern whites disappeared from the wild a decade ago and will soon follow the western black rhino, declared extinct in 2011.
To deter poachers the northern whites are escorted by armed wardens at night and their horns are trimmed back to uneven stumps.
The horns are worth more than $65 000 a kilo on the Asian black market, and sought after by Asian consumers who are falsely convinced that the ground-up keratin – the same substance as human fingernails and toenails – contains powerful medicinal properties.