In the early morning of March 19, the world a lost significant personality. Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhinoceros in the world, drew his last breath in the company of old friends in Ol Pejeta National Park, Kenya. The decision was taken by Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czech Republic (the zoo responsible for the safeguarding of Sudan) and Ol Pejeta National Park to euthanize him after his suffering for years with age-related muscle and bone degeneration and skin damage following an infection of his right hind leg.
Noted for his gentle nature in spite of his size, Sudan stole the hearts of many a ranger and visitor to the national reserve he called home. Brought there from snowy Czech Republic as a last-ditch attempt to rejuvenate the population, it was believed that the natural conditions and freedom to roam might encourage him to mate with the remaining females.
In the words of photographer Ami Vitale, who watched on as Sudan passed peacefully in the loving arms of his friend and protector, ranger Joseph Wachira, “today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind”.
The passing of this gentle giant is undoubtedly a sombre moment, even for those only hearing of his story for the first time now, but it is all the more heart-breaking for those invested in his life. He was an ambassador, a reminder to humanity of the fragility of nature and our collective responsibility to steward and protect it.
It is worth noting, however, that the fire that is the continued existence of the Northern White Rhino has not yet been extinguished. Sudan, with his increasing age and frailty, was functionally sterile for many years due to his inability to reproduce with the remaining two females of his species. As such, for many years groups have been tirelessly working to acquire biological samples from Sudan and other previously deceased Northern White Rhinos in order to establish a gene pool for potential IVF treatments. Such technologies have a real chance of pulling species such as these from the precipice of annihilation.
The hope is that Southern White Rhino mothers could be used as surrogate mothers to carry the Northern sub-species’ embryos, fertilised using the genetic information acquired from Sudan and other Northern males before they died. This is completely uncharted territory, somewhat equivalent to the theorised concepts of scientists in the future to bring back the Woolly Mammoth using DNA locked in the frozen bodies of the ancient species, but an exciting prospect nonetheless.
But why should we bother? Many might argue that the money spent on such innovative technologies could be better spent safeguarding currently threatened species with a greater chance of recovery. And my pragmatic side would agree. However, this opportunity poses a fascinating precedent. For millennia we have been the orchestrators of the systematic dismantling of Earth’s ecosystems, but now we are exploring how we might take steps to reverse the damage we have caused.
We have been instruments of destruction for too long, and the memory of Sudan – his impact in life and important role in death – could mark a positive change in our relationship with wildlife. As a species, we are powerful, and there is so much good that we can do. The thought that we might reverse extinction is an incredible one and I believe that we should not waste this opportunity.
For now, we can mourn the Gentle Giant, but the future is for carrying on his legacy and doing right by his species along with many others down the line.
By Lewis Brusby