The Last of the Northern White Rhino

If you’ve been on instagram this past week, then you may have seen the heartbreaking “Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind” quote by National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale.  It was pertaining to the death of the last male Northern White Rhino, Sudan. Now, this blog is no stranger to talking about conservation or the controversy that surrounds it. However, we often don’t realize how many species have gone extinct in our lifetime alone (did you know the Eastern Cougars were declared extinct two months ago), and more so how many of these organisms have gone extinct at the hands of humans.  

Photo by @amivitale. If there is meaning in Sudan’s passing, it’s that all hope is not lost. This can be our wake-up call. In a world of more than 7 billion people, we must see ourselves as part of the landscape. Our fate is linked to the fate of animals Joseph Wachira, (@wachira.joseph) 26 comforts Sudan, the last living male Northern White Rhino left on this planet moments before he passed away March 19, 2018 in northern Kenya. Sudan lived a long, healthy life at the conservancy after he was brought to Kenya from @safari_park_dvur_kralove in the #Czechrepublic in 2009. He died surrounded by people who loved him at @olpejeta after suffering from age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds. Sudan has been an inspirational figure for many across the world. Thousands have trooped to Ol Pejeta to see him and he has helped raise awareness for rhino conservation. The two female northern white rhinos left on the planet are his direct descendants. Research into new Assisted Reproductive Techniques for large mammals is underway due to him. The impact that this special animal has had on conservation is simply incredible. And there is still hope in the future that the subspecies might be restored through IVF. The image is copyrighted to Ami Vitale/2018. For licensing information, including in-line links and/or framing of this post, contact Ami Vitale. @olpejeta @nrt_kenya @lewa_wildlife @tusk_org @kenyawildlifeservice @thephotosociety @natgeo #LastManStanding #SudanForever #WorthMoreAlive #OlPejetaRhinos#NorthernWhiteRhinos #protectrhinos#DontLetThemDisappear #rhions#saverhinos #stoppoaching #kenya#northernkenya #africa #everydayafrica #photojournalism #amivitale @nikonusa #nikonusa #nikonlove

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Why do I think this is important?  This is one of the rare times where we have actual documentation of the extinction of a species.  Not only that, but we also have documentation of our trying to save the species when it was (quite frankly) beyond repair.

For the last 9 years, Sudan has been an integral part of the Ol Pejeta family – and it is extremely hard to come to grips with the reality that he is gone forever. He was deeply loved by all at Ol Pejeta especially his caregivers who spent every day with him and developed close relationships with him. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world had inspirational encounters with Sudan and his work as a conservation ambassador is unparalleled. We remember Sudan today and his amazing life. Read all about it here(LINK IN BIO): Photo by Glyn Edmunds #RememberingSudan #SudanForever #TheLoneBachelorGone #MeAndSudan #NorthernWhiteRhinos #ExtinctionIsReal #OlPejetaRhinos #TheLoneBachelorGone #WorthMoreAlive #SaveTheNorthernWhiteRhinos #SaveOurRhinos #SudansLegacy #NoToPoaching #ChangeOrPerish #StandUpForSudan #MansTollOnNature #ShameOnUs2ToGo #Only2Left #OlPejeta #OlPejetaConservancy

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Now, I have said in the past that I understand the controversy surrounding whether or not we should be working to conserve endangered and threatened species.  Why are we trying to “prolong” what nature is intending. I think the important difference in this case, than in the case of a species who just couldn’t survive it’s natural predators (for example) is that we are the predator.  We became what we thought the wolves were in Yellow Stone, and what we thought pumas were in Upstate, New York. We became predators, but instead of being helpful predators that controlled populations, we did what us humans know how to do best.  Kill. For money. For ivory. For selfish reasons that impacted the entire sub-species to near extinction, and now we are fighting to get it back. The worst part is, it’s a fight we’re bound to lose.

But is it?

There is quite a lot that goes into saving a species from extinction.  For one, you may be asking if we had one male and two females what was stopping us from mating them?  Well, unfortunately, Sudan, the male rhino, was past reproductive age and both females were unable to breed naturally.  Secondly, it would only survive one generation before inbreeding would occur (which is also currently the downfall of many endangered species).

Currently, the only hope that remains in order to somehow revive the rhino species is through IVF (in vitro fertilization), gene editing and stem cell research.  The issues that occur here (do not worry, I will go more into IVF in a second), is that the science behind IVF has yet to be perfected so there is no actual guarantee that it will work.


How does IVF work?

In theory, IVF combines a sperm and an egg in a laboratory environment forming a zygote that is then implanted into a surrogate.  Sounds simple, however, there is a lot that goes into fertilization, surrogacy preparation, embryo selection, and implantation. With the northern white rhinos, the idea is to take the sperm from past White Rhino’s (now dead) collected over the years in European zoos and combine them with the eggs of the two remaining females to later be implanted into a closely related surrogate species.  


This sounds like a concrete plan to expand the population, but in order to have any type of success, researchers have to act fast.  They have to develop a safe way to remove the eggs from the remaining females. With the age of the female’s, their egg number and viability is also severely in question.  However, if the eggs are not viable, scientists are also working to transform cells from the living rhinos and from the frozen storage of cells into sperm and egg cells, and then use IVF to create the embryos.  If they are able to fertilize the eggs from the females, there is also the question of how and if the implantation will take. IVF is highly reliant on the environment of the uterus. While the Southern White Rhino is a very closely related sub-species, there are still distinct differences that may limit the chances of success. It is also very expensive (about 800k per embryo transfer), but many researchers and animal activists believe it is our duty, as the species who led the Northern White Rhino to near extinction, to do whatever we can to save them.  

With all of this said, even if the IVF technology was perfected, the chances of reviving the Northern White Rhino sub-population is very little.  With little genetic variation, and a limited historic habitat, the survival of newborn calves is very limited. Just like there are activists who think we should be doing anything to save the rhinos, there are others that believe that the money we are putting into research for the Northern White Rhino’s should instead be used to expand the populations of endangered and near-extinct species that are more likely to survive.  


In my opinion, in this situation, I lean more towards putting efforts into the survival of other species.  Unfortunately, the Northern White Rhino sub-species suffered significantly under the hands of humans. From habitat loss, to the extreme poaching that began in the 1970s, humans are the reason behind the loss of the Northern White Rhinos.  I think to put our efforts into saving them, with little success, due to guilt is not properly using our resources. With that said, I do believe that the teams in the San Diego Zoo Global in California and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, should continue their research in developing techniques for IVF in rhino species, and other large animals.  The techniques that come out of that kind of research can benefit species for years to come,. I also think that we should use this as an example of what we have done wrong in the past for conservation.


Sudan’s death is a major loss for conservationalists, and especially his caretaker, bhe energy from his death can  now be used to fuel so much new research and conservation tactics for other animals. But that’s just my opinion. What about you?  Tell me what you think about Sudan and the Northern White Rhino on Facebook or Instagram.


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