Sudan was the last male northern white rhinoceros on earth. He had become an international celebrity, not because of any special talents but because he represented an entire subspecies that was about to become functionally extinct. This extinction wasn’t because the rhinos failed in evolution. It was because they could not survive us, mankind.
Wild rhino populations had been reduced from hundreds of thousands a century ago to just 19,000 by the 1980s due to hunting. By 2008, the entire wild northern white rhino population had been decimated by poachers and there were only eight of these gentle, hulking creatures known to be alive—and they were all living in zoos.
In December 2009, a bold plan was put in place to airlift four of these rhinos from Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czechia (the Czech Republic) all the way to Africa. It sounded like a storyline for a Disney movie, but in reality, it was a desperate, last-ditch effort to save an entire species. The animals were loaded into crates and flown to Ol Pejeta Conservancy over an arduous 24-hour journey, over 4,000 miles away. The hope was that the air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa.
But the rhinos never successfully bred, and in March 2018, Sudan had to be euthanized because of his old age. In his final moments, he was surrounded by all the people who loved and protected him. Their quiet sobs could not be muffled against a backdrop of an eerie stillness. I think back often on this moment and it is the silence that I remember most—a haunting silence that seemed to foreshadow what a world without wildlife would be like.
Sudan’s daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu, are now the last two remaining northern white rhinos. They remind us that the world is still so beautiful in spite of all that is breaking our hearts.
Remarkably, hope is still not lost. A multidisciplinary team of scientists spanning five continents has turned to innovative reproduction techniques and cutting-edge stem cell technology in an attempt to save the subspecies. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of the BioRescue Project, there are now 24 northern white rhino embryos that are ready to be transferred into surrogate southern white rhino females in the near future. They plan to use frozen cell cultures from northern white rhinos, including Sudan, to create stem cells, which could become egg and sperm and unite to create an embryo. This scientific knowledge will not only change the fate of the northern white rhino, it will have profound implications for the other species of rhino that are also critically endangered—as well as the more than 16,000 endangered animals on Earth today.
How did we arrive at the point where such desperate measures are necessary? It’s astonishing that a demand for rhino horn, based entirely on misinformation, has caused the wholesale slaughter of a species. At the same time, it is encouraging that a disparate group of people have come together in an attempt to save something unique and precious, something that if not saved, will be gone forever.
What happens next is in all of our hands. What’s going to save us all is to get beyond our routine ways of thinking. Wonder is what allows us to reimagine our future together. Wonder allows us to believe that we can fundamentally change the course we are currently on. Our fate is linked to the fate of animals. Without rhinos and other wildlife we suffer more than loss of ecosystem health. We suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.
Learn more about how you can help and support this effort by watching the short award-winning film, Remembering Sudan and following @olpejeta @BioRescue_project and @SafariParkDvurKralove
Article by Ami Vitale