Extinct. The end of a species. It was heartbreaking! To hear that Sudan, the 45-year old, last surviving male northern white rhino who lived at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, was put to sleep after months of poor health. His daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu, are the last surviving females of a species that once roamed the African plains from Uganda to the Congo. By Priya Florence Shah
Sudan was a northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), one of the two subspecies of the white rhinoceros (the other being the southern white rhinoceros). His species numbered 2,000 to 3,000 in 1909, but poaching for rhino horn (used in traditional medicine) reduced its population to just 15 in the 1970s and 1980s. Almost extinct, the last remaining northern white rhinos were under 24-hour protection by armed guards.
But nothing could protect this ‘gentle giant’ from the ravages of old age. At 45 years (90 in human years), he was put to sleep, and with him vanished all hope of breeding the species naturally. And with Najin and Fatu unable to bear progeny, scientists, who saved some of Sudan’s genetic material, are considering options such as artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer to restore this now extinct species.
One option may be to fertilize eggs, from the two female rhinos, with stored sperm cells from Sudan and other dead northern white rhinos. The embryos would then be implanted into healthy southern white rhino surrogates, to give them the best chance of survival.
This may still be our last chance at undoing the damage that human avarice and self-indulgence have wreaked on all five rhino species, many of which are still critically endangered and vulnerable to poaching. But, if we can talk about bringing the long-extinct mammoth back from the dead, why not a species that only just vanished into oblivion?