Last male northern White Rhino passes away, we wonder who is next

4th May 2018

The last male northern white rhinoceros, Sudan, was euthanized last month in East Africa. Once referred to as “the world’s most eligible bachelor” complete with his own Tinder account to raise money for scientific breeding techniques, his daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu, survive him as the last two living members of the subspecies. Neither of the remaining females can carry a pregnancy to term, deeming the northern white rhino essentially extinct. Conservationists have expressed sorrow at their inability to save the subspecies, marked by a slightly smaller frame than their southern counterparts.

Sudan had been living in captivity for most of his life. He was moved from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya in 2009 where he spent the remainder of his life. The last wild white rhino was killed in the Congo in 2008 amid warfare there. Rhinos are subjected to poaching for their horns, which some in the Far East believe to have healing qualities, though it is well-known that they are made primarily of keratin, the protein that makes up hair and nails.

In the last few decades, a number of animals have become extinct, including the Pyrenean ibex, passenger pigeon, and the western black rhinoceros. There is a widespread acknowledgement that human behaviour drives so many species to the brink of survival – from habitat destruction to poaching. Though many animals are raised in captivity, such a life, which necessitates primarily human contact, is not comparable to that of life in the wild. Three of the 17 animals on the World Wildlife Fund’s critically endangered list are rhinoceroses: the black, the Sumatran, and the Javan. Rhinos are often described as walking fossils because they are one of the world’s oldest living mammals.

Some scientists are looking to commit millions of dollars to use in vitro fertilization to bring back the northern white rhino. Since neither of the remaining female northern white rhinos is able to carry a baby, the fertilized egg would be put into a southern white rhinoceros. Many believe that trying to bring back an essentially extinct subspecies would be a fool’s errand, due to the difficulty and complexity of the process, which has never been tried on rhinos, and the so-called founder effect, which is the loss of genetic variation due to a small number of individuals comprising a population. Those opposed to bringing back the northern white rhino in a petri dish believe that such funds would be better spent protecting the rhinos currently in danger of extinction from poachers.

Scientists have also acknowledged the need to prioritise some endangered species over others; for example, those that provide integral ecosystem services, form a key element of the food chain or add to the livelihoods of humans. The cost of trying to save all endangered species would be staggering, and with current development trends, impossible. There may be some species that prove more ‘valuable’ than others, but the one factor shown to be the greatest accelerator of extinction is humans.

A 2015 study published in Science Advances found that “The average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate (two mammal extinctions per 10,000 species per 100 years.)” This number is staggering. Currently, some of the world’s most culturally symbolic species are dying out. According to Ami Vitale of Time, who spent time with Sudan, “It’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the killing continues, these rhinos – along with elephants and a host of lesser-known plains animals – will be functionally extinct in our lifetime.”

Sudan’s death was high profile. There was an outpouring of sadness, an acknowledgement of human culpability, and deep regret. Some believed it would be a wakeup call, garnering political and financial support for conservation efforts and even stricter measures against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Yet, these sentiments are often fleeting to a person who is not invested in the issue, who does not see these animals or experience their value to the world and various ecosystems.

We may mourn Sudan, and even try to bring his species back through scientific innovations, but what is being lost as more and more wild species go extinct, is nature in its truest form, for humans to be good stewards over. As one BBC reporter put it, “It’s initially upsetting, and eventually just numbing.”

Sarah Sakeena Marshall,
English Language Teacher, Environmental Columnist

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