In central Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Sudan the last remaining male northern white rhino is surrounded by humans.
A team of armed rangers take turns guarding the mammal day and night.
There are five remaining known northern white rhinos in the world. Of them, there are four females and Sudan, the only male still alive.
The rare species was first captured in 1980s in Sudan, which, together with DR Congo and Central African Republic, used to be their natural habitat.
Poaching has reduced the number of rhinos
However, years of poaching for rhino horns as well as conflicts in the region have resulted in the animal’s disappearance from the wild almost a decade ago.
Sudan had then been kept at a zoo in Czech Republic before brought to the Kenyan conservancy in 2009 with another male, Suni, and two females, in a hope that the natural conditions here can provide “the last chance of survival” and help them breed.
Last October, Suni died. Another male in a US zoo died two months later bringing the number of remaining northern white rhinos on the planet from seven to five.
Two females and Sudan live at Ol Pejeta in central Kenya and another two females living separately in zoos of the United States and Czech Republic.
Sudan now too old to mate
So you may be wondering why Sudan is so lonely and not out dating the other females. At 42, he’s apparently too old to mate as mammals usually have a life expectancy of 40 years in wild, and maybe a little longer in captivity.
The rest four females are also barely to reproduce either because of old age or other physical reasons. Richard Vigne, the chief executive of Ol Pejeta said there’s no fear that the animal will die out.
“It’s highly unlikely that the animal will not go extinct…If a species diminishes to such small number, then it becomes very difficult to recover that species.
Vigne said there were several natural breeding attempts when the animals were first brought to the conservancy, but all failed.
But because the rhinos haven’t lived in their natural habitat for a long time and are getting old and inter-related, it’s difficult for them to breed again as their reproductive organs may have begun degenerating.
Sudan’s keeper saw the rhino last mate three years ago
Three years ago, Mohammed Doyo, the keeper of the rare species, recalled seeing Sudan trying to mate with a female southern white rhino, yet it eventually turned out futile.
Like the northern white rhino, a southern white one is a subspecies closely related to the northern, but is less endangered.
It has an estimated population of 20,000 worldwide, mostly in South Africa.
Southern rhino more social, northern ones are shy
What distinguishes them are that the northern white rhino has hair along the edge of its ears and the northern member of the subspecies tends to be slightly less social than the southern, and prefers thicker bush while the southern likes to be in open space.
In this 90,000 acre of conservancy, instead of wandering around on the vast savanna as before, Sudan now has been kept in enclosure for a year to avoid getting hurt from other rhinos, according to Doyo.
Though guarded by armed rangers around the clock, the mammal’s horns had also been trimmed for fear of poaching. Doyo said he cares for Sudan as if he was the rhino’s parent.
“He is like my own children. I would feel very sad if we lose it.
Artificial insemination keeps hope alive
There are hopes of using artificial insemination to keep the species alive, including in vitro fertilization where eggs and sperms of northern white rhinos are fertilized to create an embryo, which is then implanted into a female southern white rhino, hoping to get a northern white calf.
But the technology is risky and expensive and plans are to try it out first among the southern subspecies first, according to Vigne.
“We need to raise money first, and we estimate it would take as long as two years before we can get a successful pregnancy with a pure northern rhino embryo.
There is also another option, which will use some already stored semen of northern white rhinos in the world and crossbreed it with female southern white rhinos to get a hybrid.
However, this means, if succeeds, it would not be a pure northern white rhino. But Vigne said it is a viable alternative.
“It is not perfect, but it is better than nothing…Poaching of rhinos across Africa still continues at a very high rate. If we as human race don’t do something to stop it, what is happening now to the northern white rhino will happen to many other species.
GoFundMe raising money for guards
The Ol Pejeta conservancy is also raising money to fund the guards to watch the rhinos in its care. The GoFundMe account has now raised £68,000 mark of its £75,000 goal.
The £75,000 means that for the next 6 months, the men who guard Sudan and the 106 black rhino and 20 white rhino that live on Ol Pejeta will be properly equipped, clothed and compensated.
Every little amount goes such a long way:
- £5 buys a ranger’s daily food ration
- £25 buys a pair of padded socks to keep our rangers’ feet warm
- £51 pounds buys one set of ranger fatigues
- £70 buys a pair of all-weather boots
- £90 buys tents for our men to shield themselves in when it rains.