The rarest rhino in the world can be found wallowing in the mud at the Ol Pejeta Nature Conservancy in Kenya. Constantly guarded by vigilant rifle-clad guards, these two animals have no idea that they are the last members of their kind. They are northern white rhinos – the very last northern white rhinos anywhere on Earth. They have been poached to the very edge of extinction, with virtually no hope for recovery.
The white rhino, paradoxically, is simultaneously both the rarest and commonest of all the world’s rhinos. If you consider the species as a whole, it is the only one that isn’t considered endangered (the IUCN classifies it as ‘Near Threatened’). However, all but two members of this species belong to the southern subspecies, of which roughly 20,000 individuals remain – far more than all the other four rhino species combined. The southern and northern white rhinos look remarkably similar, even if you stood them next to each other – although very trained eyes and scientific literature will tell you that their body proportions are slightly different and the northern white tends to hold its head a little higher.
The northern subspecies once roamed Africa in their thousands. But by the 1980s, intensive poaching had massively reduced their numbers, to the point that only around 15 wild individuals remained. In 2005, a survey found only four remaining animals, in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Considering that the national park is in the middle of a seemingly relentless war zone, it’s unsurprising that only a few years later even these last individuals were gone.
A very small captive population remained, but they rarely reproduced. In a last-ditch attempt to save the subspecies, four rhinos from Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic (the only reproductive animals of their kind left) were transported to Ol Pejeta Nature Conservancy in 2009, where they were monitored and protected round-the-clock by armed guards. It was hoped that being back in their natural habitat might stimulate these rhinos into breeding. Sadly, they never did. One of the four, a male, died in 2014 from natural causes. A year later, in 2015, the last two remaining northern white rhinos in captivity (one at Dvůr Králové Zoo; the other in San Diego Zoo), which were both elderly and unable to breed, also died, leaving the three living at Ol Pejeta Nature Conservancy – Sudan, Najin and Fatu – as the final representatives of their kind. But even these surviving animals – grandfather, mother and daughter – were too old, too ill, and too related to breed naturally.
In 2017, Ol Pejeta Conservancy teamed up with Tinder and Ogilvy Africa to launch a fundraising campaign in order to try and save the subspecies. They created a Tinder account for Sudan, the last remaining northern white rhino male. ‘I’m one of a kind,’ Sudan said on his profile. ‘No, seriously, I’m the last male white rhino on planet earth. I don’t mean to be too forward, but the fate of my species literally depends on us getting together. I like to eat grass and chill in the mud. No problems performing under pressure. 6ft tall and 5,000lbs if it matters.’ Tinder users could swipe right to make their donations for the development of new fertility treatment for the rhinos since all attempts to get them to mate naturally had failed.
But sadly, on 19 March 2018, Sudan was euthanised after suffering from age-related health issues, leaving only two ageing females left alive. Barring the existence of unknown or misclassified male northern white rhinos elsewhere in Africa, the subspecies is functionally already extinct.
But there is one possible means of salvation.
Egg cells have been taken from both Najin and Fatu and, in August 2019, were artificially inseminated using the frozen sperm that had been extracted from the last northern white rhino males, before they had died. Two of the resulting embryos were viable. In January 2020, another embryo was created using the same technique. All three embryos have been placed in liquid nitrogen until they can be placed in a surrogate mother, almost certainly the closely related southern white rhino.
Is the northern white rhino too far gone? Is it simply in limbo, waiting for the inevitable confirmation that the species has become yet another casualty in the extinction event that is threatening biodiversity around the world? Or will advanced reproductive technologies allow for one of the greatest comebacks of all time?