Northern White Rhinos: All is Not Lost

By Maia Poon

On March 19th, 2018, the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Sudan, the 45-year-old rhino, had been gravely ill for days. He was conflicted with an age-related infection in 2017. After he was treated and able to move normally, he developed a secondary infection underneath the first one. This time, the treatment did not work. To end his suffering, Sudan’s veterinary team euthanized him.

Sudan (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) 2015-05-22 (C) Make it Kenya/Stuart Price, CC0 1.0

I was saddened to hear this news as an animal lover. Humans, specifically illegal poachers and consumers, are the cause of this near-extinction. Much like sharks are brutally killed for their fins, rhinos are inhumanely killed for their horns. Rhino horns are traditionally believed to have medicinal properties in Asia. They have become a status symbol of wealth as well. Even within the safety of the conservancy, Ol Pejeta has to hire 24/7 armed guards to protect their rhinos from poachers.

What now?

Sudan was survived by his 28-year-old daughter, Najin, and his 17-year-old granddaughter, Fatu. Najin and Fatu were not healthy enough to become pregnant. Thus, researchers have turned to alternative reproduction technology. This includes in vitro fertilization (IVF), when an egg is combined with sperm outside of the body.

Embryo transfer has been achieved in other rhino species. This is when embryos are placed in a female to establish pregnancy. Just half an hour after Sudan’s death, veterinarians had collected Sudan’s tissue from various parts of his body. The genetic material could be used in IVF. Southern white rhino females would be surrogates to carry northern white rhino embryos. The process is very expensive, however. Ol Pejeta partnered with Tinder to fund the rescue efforts, with a goal to raise $9 million. If the plan can be executed, scientists hope to breed a herd of ten northern white rhinos after five years of IVF treatment.

Meanwhile, Sudan’s Tinder profile remains popular on the internet. His profile was “broadcast in 190 countries and in 40 languages,” according to Mathieu Plassard of Ogilvy Africa. As of January 2018, his profile raised just less than $100,000. However “the world’s most eligible bachelor” continues to raise awareness for his species. In 2019, we can remain hopeful that with some generous financial support and revolutionary technology, the northern white rhinoceros will not be another species lost to extinction.

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