On the Brink of Extinction
World’s rarest rhino
There are now just two northern white rhinoceros remaining in the world. Najin and Fatu (both female) live under constant protection from poachers in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Sudan (the last remaining male) died on March 19th 2018, effectively rendering the entire subspecies extinct. The northern white rhino was once abundant across Central Africa but staggering rates of illegal hunting for its horn have already led to its (almost certain) extinction in the wild.
Northern white rhino facts
The white rhino is the third largest African animal (after the elephant and hippo) and weighs between 1,700 and 2,400 kg
White rhinos are not actually white, but grey. The confusion results from a misinterpretation of the Dutch word ‘wijde’ (meaning wide, not white), used to describe the rhino’s mouth
The wide mouth is an adaptation that helps them graze on grass, as opposed to the black rhino’s pointed mouth, which is adapted for browsing on leaves, shoots and branches
Rhino horn is used in traditional Asian medicines and to demonstrate social status
Northern white rhinos once ranged across north-western Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, political instability in these countries and growing demand for rhino horn led to an increase in poaching.
Armed conflict across Central Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s wiped out most of the remaining northern white rhinos except for a small population in Garamba National Park in DRC. In 2008, a survey in Garamba concluded that northern white rhinos had become extinct in the wild. This left just eight northern white rhinos in two zoos on opposite sides of the world – in the Czech Republic and California.
Attention quickly turned to the northern white rhinos living in Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czech Republic. In December 2009, with support from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the last four breeding individuals (two males and two females) were flown from the zoo to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy in a final attempt to save the subspecies from extinction. It was hoped that a more natural environment would stimulate them to breed.
Sadly, despite a number of matings, no rhino calves were born. In 2013, one of the males suddenly died from a heart attack leaving just one male (Sudan) and two females in Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Even before his sad and widely publicised death in March 2018, Sudan’s old age meant that natural reproduction was no longer an option.
Rhino experts are now exploring the possibility of artificial reproduction technologies, using in vitro fertilisation and southern white rhino surrogates as a way to preserve and maintain northern white rhino genes into the future. Could this subspecies be brought back from extinction? The future is uncertain and it is a race against time.
In 2003, with the help of the Arcus Foundation, Flora & Fauna International purchased a 364-km2 cattle ranch that forms part of a critical wildlife corridor at the foot of Mount Kenya. The ranch was converted into a wildlife conservancy and was transferred from FFI to a Kenyan non-profit entity in 2005 under a long-term management agreement. Today known as Ol Pejeta Conservancy, this area forms a vital part of the Laikipia ecosystem in northern Kenya, and is a crucial sanctuary for white and black rhinos as well as a variety of other threatened species including Grevy’s zebra.
FFI continues to work with Ol Pejeta to this day. Since assisting with the translocation of four northern white rhinos, we have provided ongoing technical and financial support to ensure that they, along with all the resident black rhinos and a small population of southern white rhinos, are well protected. Ol Pejeta is currently the only reserve in Africa conserving three rhino subspecies.
Discussing the future of the northern white rhino, Dr Rob Brett (FFI’s Senior Technical Specialist) said, “It may be possible to generate and conserve future offspring from the remaining animals at some time in the future.
“This will depend not only on full collaboration and sharing of expertise between artificial reproduction specialists from South Africa, Europe and the US, but also on securing the funding and capacity required to establish dedicated lab and rhino management facilities at Ol Pejeta, so that any future offspring can live and thrive in a natural habitat.”