No escape from extinction for northern white rhino

MARCH 17, 2015

Extinction is now a reality for the northern white rhino with only five animals left on the planet – a gruesome testimony to unabated human greed and indifference. Poor sperm, age, weak legs and ovarian cysts seem to have also sealed the fate of the animals.

Having weathered natural threats for around 26 million years , the northern white rhino succumbed to poaching mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

While scientists and conservationists are pinning their hopes on genetics and vitro-fertilisation, which might allow for the resurrection of the northern white rhino in test tubes in the future, this will only happen after the rhinos have died one by one.

"We are down to five, so they are very close to extinction, perhaps in a few years," Jan Stejskal of the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic told AFP.

The Zoo, due to acquisitions in the 1970s, owns all the remaining northern whites in the world.

"I still believe there is hope we will be able to save them. The best we can do now is harvest sperm and egg samples for future in vitro fertilisation, and wait until the time the techniques are developed enough to give us a good chance of reproduction."

The last living male, named Sudan, lives on a reserve of savannah and woodlands in central Kenya, with two of the remaining females. The other two females live alone in zoos in the Czech Republic and the US.

Two males - Angalifu and Suni - died last year.

Northern white rhinos' fate sealed

At 43, Sudan is old by rhino standards and vets say his sperm is of low quality.

Nola, at San Diego Zoo, is also beyond reproductive age, while Nabire at Dvur Kralove Zoo is 31 but suffers from ovarian cysts.

In Kenya, Najin, 25, cannot mate because of her weak hind legs, while her daughter, Fatu, 14, is infertile.

Fatu, the world’s youngest northern white rhino, is expected to be the world’s last in a few years.

"We are going to witness the demise of this species, that’s the reality of what we face. They are going to die here," says Ol Pejeta CE Richard Vigne, lamenting decades of inaction.

"It is an indictment of what the human race is doing to planet earth and it’s not just happening to rhinos. It’s happening to all sorts of species, big and small, across the planet."

The Sixth Great Extinction

Scientists are calling the mass wiping out of species by humans the ‘sixth great extinction’ - the fifth being the one that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"The northern white’s geographic range was Central Africa (which was) subject to war, strife and lawlessness, and that opened the door for poachers to kill them at will. People are absolutely to blame," says Vigne.

As recently as the mid-19th century there were more than a million northen white rhino in Africa.

The last northern whites disappeared from the wild a decade ago and will soon follow the western black rhino, declared extinct in 2011.

Assisted reproduction may yet bring the northern white back but if they cannot be reintroduced into the wild then, some ask, what is the point?

"If they’re just to become museum specimens in zoos then it’s perhaps time to see them go," says Rob Brett, regional director for Africa at Fauna and Flora International.

To deter poachers, the northern whites are escorted by armed wardens at night and their horns are trimmed back to uneven stumps.

The horns are worth more than US$65 000/kg on the Asian black market, and are sought after by consumers who are falsely convinced that the ground-up keratin - the substance that human fingernails and toenails are made of - contains powerful medicinal properties.

In South Africa, the number of rhinos killed has shot from 13 in 2005 to 1 215 in 2014. The number of rhinos killed in 2015 already stands at more than 110.

Additional reporting by AFP.

Image: In Kenya, the remaining northern white rhino are now guarded around the clock.

 

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