Sudan, the Last Male Northern White Rhino Has Died in Kenya

Sudan, the Last Male Northern White Rhino Has Died in Kenya
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Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros, died March 19, 2018 in Kenya at the age of 45. The majestic giant’s death follows multiple infections and other health problems. [1]

The elderly rhino was euthanized after his condition “worsened significantly” and the animal could no longer stand. At time of his death, his muscles and bones had degenerated, and his skin was covered in wounds. [2]

Only 2 northern white rhinos remain – 2 females, Sudan’s daughter, Najin, and his granddaughter, Fatu. Both reside at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where Sudan spent his last days. [1]

Scientists are scrambling to develop new reproductive technology to save the species, which has been hunted to near-extinction.

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Thomas Hildebrandt, head of reproductive management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and one of the project’s leaders, said:

“This is a creation that didn’t fail in evolution. It’s in this situation because of us.”

In 1960, the northern white rhinos, a subspecies of southern white rhinos, numbered approximately 2,000.

By 2008, scientists were struggling to locate northern white rhinos in the wild, all of them having been killed by war, habitat loss, and poaching. However, Sudan and several other rhinos still existed in zoos around the world.

Many animal rights activists and animal lovers in general bemoan the fact that wild animals are kept captive in the unnatural living spaces of zoos to live out their lives before a captive human audience. In the case of Sudan, however, captivity was his saving grace. It seems captivity may be the only thing that saves the species, if it is still possible.

Jan Stejskal, director of international projects at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, where Sudan spent most of his life, said:

“Sudan is an extreme symbol of human disregard for nature. He survived extinction of his kind in the wild only thanks to living in a zoo.”

She added:

“We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilized for conservation of critically endangered species. It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring. We will be happy for everyone who will help us in our joint effort.” [2]

Indeed, the race is on to breed Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter, a feat that can only be accomplished through in-vitro fertilization using northern white rhino sperm from several males not related to the pair. Since neither Najin or Fatu is able to carry a pregnancy to term, scientists are hoping to extract the mother-daughter duo’s eggs; fertilize the eggs in vitro with banked sperm; and then implant the embryos in surrogate southern white rhino females. [1]

It’s a dicey plan; in-vitro fertilization has never worked in a rhino before. Even if scientists are successful, the resulting offspring will be dangerously lacking in genetic diversity.

But there is hope. There are currently about 20,000 southern white rhinos roaming Africa – an encouraging increase from the less than 100 living in the area a century ago. The species was saved by the efforts of conservationist Ian Player in the mid-20th century. [2]

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Ol Pejeta Conservancy CEO, Richard Vigne, said of the late, great Sudan:

“He was a great ambassador for his species and will be remembered for the work he did to raise awareness globally of the plight facing not only rhinos, but also the many thousands of other species facing extinction as a result of unsustainable human activity.” [3]

Sources:

[1] The New York Times

[2] CBS News/Associated Press

[3] The Washington Post