Sudan, the last remaining northern white rhino, in a Kenyan conservation park

Standing in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, this is Sudan, the last male northern white rhino. An armed guard kept a 24-hour watch over him and his two female companions, also the last of their kind. Over the years, the guards have developed a close relationship with their charges, leaning on them as they walk together through their days.

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White rhino Sudan dies: is all hope lost for this subspecies?

The death of Sudan, who lived in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, means there are just two northern white rhinos left, both females. It leaves the subspecies with little hope of escaping extinction.

Sudan was 45 years old and suffering from a degenerative disease that caused skin wounds as well as changes in his muscles and bones.

After his condition worsened and left him unable to stand, vets decided to euthanize him. It means the subspecies is clinging to existence by a thread.

Richard Sabin, a mammal expert at the Museum, says, 'It's unfortunate that we are facing the loss of this subspecies and the opportunities to objectively study the significance of its role in the evolution of the rhinoceros.'

The evolution of the rhino

Sudan's death is a terrible tragedy. But to understand its real significance it is necessary to examine rhinos' evolutionary history.

The earliest members of the rhinoceros family appeared in the fossil record about 50 million years ago, comparatively recently in geological terms. Over time, rhinoceroses became a very diverse group, growing to huge sizes and living in a variety of environments.

Richard says, 'Nowadays, people think of rhinos living in hot countries. But it wasn't always this way. For example, woolly rhinos - as their name suggests - had thick, woolly coats and became adapted to life in much colder, drier climates.'

'Now we have just five living rhino species left, a poor remnant of their former diversity.'

The five surviving species of rhino are the white and the black rhinos in Africa, and the greater one-horned, the Sumatran and the Javan rhinos in Asia.

Sudan was a northern white rhino, a subspecies of the white rhino.

Other rhinoceros species died out over millions of years, mostly because of changing climates and environments. But human activity is having the greatest impact on the final few species.

For instance, the poaching crisis of the 1970s and 80s wiped out the northern white rhino populations in Uganda, Central African Republic, Sudan and Chad. It was fuelled by demand for rhinoceros horn for use in traditional medicines in Asia and ceremonial dagger handles in Yemen.

The last remaining wild population of northern white rhinos, made up of between 20 and 30 individuals in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were killed during fighting in the region in the 1990s and early 2000s. By 2008, the northern white rhino was considered by most experts to be extinct in the wild.

Two rhinos grazing

Two white rhinos. © Jiri Balek/Shutterstock.com

Hope running out

Sudan, a male northern white rhino, arrived at Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic in the 1970s. In 2009, he was moved to Kenya with one other male and two females.

The other male, called Suni, died of natural causes in October 2014, leaving Sudan as the sole surviving male of the subspecies. 

Sudan's genetic material has been collected and is being used as part of an attempt to preserve the genetic diversity of the northern white rhino. 

However, there are only two female northern white rhinos left on the planet - Sudan's daughter Najin and her daughter Fatu, who remain at the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy in central Kenya. The only hope for the preservation of this subspecies now lies with in vitro fertilisation (IVF). This involves fertilising eggs from the two remaining females with stored northern white rhino semen from males and then using southern white rhino females as surrogates. 

In August 2019, egg cells from Najin and Fatu were harvested so that they could be artificially inseminated using frozen sperm from a northern white rhino. In September 2019, scientists announced that this method had produced two viable embryos. Another embryo was created in December 2020. As of February 2020, a total of 14 embryos had been created. The end goal is that these can be placed in a surrogate, most likely a female southern white rhino. 

The IVF programme could produce viable offspring, but the available northern white rhino gene pool is so limited that there could be problems caused by inbreeding, which might compromise the success of the whole programme. It's also highly unlikely that scientists would ever be able to recreate a northern white rhino using the genetic material that remains via other methods.

What else can be done?

The southern and the northern are two subspecies of the white rhino.

While the northern white rhino faces extinction after Sudan's death, the situation for the southern is less dire. They are classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are currently nearly 19,000 of them but their populations are decreasing. Without careful management and protection, however, they could also be at risk.

Responses in art

Soon to be on display at the Museum, artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg's installation The Substitute is a response to these attempts to preserve the northern white rhino using IVF and DNA technology. By reconstructing the rhino using artificial intelligence, her video installation highlights the paradox of our preoccupation with trying to resurrect extinct species using biotechnology while at the same time continuing to neglect existing endangered species. 

The life-sized projection of the rhino starts off pixilated before becoming more life-like over time as it explores the space, inviting onlookers to contemplate whether a substitute can ever replicate the real thing or is just an attempt to ease our collective guilt. You can see The Substitute in the Jerwood Gallery in the Blue Zone from 16 December 2022. 

A dead rhino lies on the ground, pink tissue exposed where the horn has been cut off

Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton. This image of a shot and dehorned black rhino won the fifty-third Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Conserving the world's mammals

It's not the first time that a species has been lost before scientists really got the chance to understand the significance of their position within their ecosystem. The Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) and quagga (a form of zebra) suffered the same fate.

There are threats facing other large mammal species. Habitat loss is the greatest threat globally, followed by illegal hunting. 

Richard says, 'Being a large mammal in the wild can be a problem. Unless they live in remote places, far from human activity, they struggle when they encounter expanding human populations.'

'There are things we can all do to help protect animals in the wild. We can be aware of how we are affecting the environment, especially when we go on holiday. We can think about our carbon footprint and the impact we have on other resources.'

'Ethical, green tourism is so important. For example, always go on safari with an approved, accredited company, in a way that won't put unnecessary stress on animal populations. Don't unwittingly fuel the trade in endangered species by purchasing souvenirs which may be made from material taken from illegally hunted animals.'

'You can also get involved wherever you are in the world. Be vocal, express your views, petition governments to do more, and support internationally recognised conservation organisations.'