Suffering from degenerative changes in his muscles and bones as well as skin wounds, Sudan, the last wild-caught northern white rhinoceros in captivity, was unable to stand on Monday. As a result, the decision was made by a team of veterinarians at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy – where he had been living since December 2009 – to put him to sleep.
Originally caught in South Sudan and moved to a home at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czech Republic in 1975, Sudan was transferred to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya in 2009, making the journey along with three other northern white rhinos – his 28-year-old daughter Najin, his 18-year-old granddaughter Fatu, and an unrelated male, Suni, aged 23 at the time of the transfer. Conservationists had hoped that a more natural habitat at the sanctuary, rather than the confines of a zoo, would provide better chances for the rhinos to breed, thereby ensuring the survival of the sub-species. However, hopes for such procreation faded away as Sudan grew older. With the death of Suni by natural causes in 2014 at the age of 34, the full responsibility fell onto Sudan. On average, rhinos live between 40 to 50 years.
Formerly abundant in northwestern Uganda, southern Chad, southwestern Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern white rhinos were devastated by widespread poaching in both DRC and neighbouring Sudan. According to figures from the WWF and IUCN, from 2,360 rhinos in 1960 only 25 individuals remained in the wild in 1998, all in Garamba National Park, DRC. Poaching has intensified due to the soaring price of rhino horn on the black market (1kg of rhino horn can today fetch up to $60,000). No live rhinos have been seen in Garamba since 2008, leading to the sub-species being listed as ‘Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct in the Wild)’ on the IUCN Red List.
The life of Sudan is closely linked to broader conservation threats, as highlighted by Heather Sohl, a chief adviser for wildlife at WWF. ‘We’re seeing the extinction of the northern white rhino happen right before our eyes, driven by the insatiable demand for their horns,’ she says. Rhino horn is traditionally used in East Asia for its alleged medicinal purposes, despite no scientific proof underpinning the practice. Being more valuable in some cases than diamonds, the international greed for rhino horn meant that Sudan had to spend his days under 24/7 surveillance by armed guards.
The death of Sudan sparks reflection on the patterns of other rhino populations. Adam Peyman, Wildlife Programme Manager at Humane Society International adds that ‘whilst a sad day, it should also serve as a call to action to protect this majestic species, as Sudan’s cousins around the world remain at risk of extinction if current poaching rates continue.’ There are currently five species of rhinos left in the world, whose populations range from over 20,000 to just a handful (see map below). The northern sub-species of the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) provides a dramatic contrast with its southern counterpart (Ceratotherium simum simum) which is considered a real conservation success story. The southern sub-species was once on the brink of extinction, with only one small population of 20 to 50 individuals remaining in South Africa by the end of 19th century. Through international conservation efforts, populations have increased now to over 20,000 individuals.
However, it doesn’t look as though there will be a similar happy ending for the northern white rhino. Philip Mansbridge, UK Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), states that the death of Sudan is ‘a timely and poignant reminder to all of us of the desperate need to protect our endangered species, from rhino to elephant to tiger, which are at a tipping point as their populations continue to be decimated by poaching to satisfy human demand for items that none of us needs.’
Conservationists at Ol Pejeta are holding on to a slim hope in ensuring the survival of northern white rhinos through in vitro fertilisation (IVF). IVF would rely on using stored sperm from several rhino males – Sudan’s genetic material was collected on Monday – and eggs from the remaining females at Ol Pejeta, which will then be fertilised in a surrogate Southern white female. Nonetheless, the success of rhino IVF is not guaranteed as the operation to extract the eggs of the females holds inherent risks in terms of sedation and surgical procedure. Plus, this in extremis solution could cost up to $9million (£6million) from the development of methods, to trial and to implantation.
Even in the best-case scenario, broader international measures would be needed to better protect rhinos from current conservation threats. Despite the interdiction by CITES to trade rhino horn trade internationally, South Africa lifted its moratorium on the domestic ban to sell rhino horns, leading to the first-ever legal online sale of rhino horn. Though trade is allowed only domestically, it is likely that a porous law enforcement will lead to horns being traded across borders – a suspicion strengthened as the website of the auction was translated in Mandarin and Vietnamese.
When it comes to wildlife trade, IFAW’s Director of International Policy Matthew Collis highlights that ‘it is critical to tackle all points in the chain – from protecting rhinos on the ground in Africa and Asia, to combating organised criminal networks that are trafficking the products, to reducing demand for these products in the destination countries.’ He adds that ‘countries all along the chain, source countries, transit countries and demand countries, need the support of the international community.’
The world’s eyes are now turning to legislators at the upcoming CITES CoP18 forum taking place next year in Sri Lanka, where the death of Sudan is likely to prompt a deeper discussion on rhino horn trade. Mark Jones, an associate director at Born Free, underscores the role of the CITES rhino working group in pinpointing ‘particular countries of concern’ – notably ‘South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia in terms of source countries, Vietnam and more recently China in terms of markets’. Jones hopes that the Sudan’s death will act as a catalyst for stronger international commitments and that ‘CITES doesn’t shy away from taking every possible action in order to reduce and eliminate trade in rhino horn, including compliance proceedings where appropriate.’
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