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As the health of the world’s last male northern white rhino deteriorates, scientists are considering extreme experiments

Stefan Andrews
Photo:Lengai101 CC BY 3.0

The world will be a sadder place if we lose the last rhinos in Africa, which, as statistics point out, are down to roughly 30,000 alive in the wilderness. According to the latest news, one of the subspecies of this beautiful animal, the northern white rhino, hovers at the point of saying goodbye forever.

Back in the day, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of rhinos freely roamed different African countries such as Chad, Sudan, and Uganda, among others. However, recent years have seen an alarming decline of the general rhino population, and some of the subspecies are even on the verge of total extinction. These animals have principally suffered from the attacks of poachers, for whom the horn of the rhino makes a lucrative score.

In the case of the northern white rhino, the last time any members were seen outside of captivity was more  than a decade ago. Now this rhino can no longer be spotted anywhere in the wild. The very last members of the subspecies, counting three in number, reside in a special sanctuary and are under constant watch to ensure they don’t become the victim of poachers.

Sadly, the health of the single male of the three last northern white rhinos is worsening due to old age. His name is Sudan, he is aged 45, and his health has got everyone worrying. Sudan and the other two northern white rhinos are taken care of in the Kenyan-based Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and according to the team, the sickly animal has suffered from two subsequent infections on one of its legs.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy has shared the news that Sudan’s health is declining as of the end of February and beginning of March, saying that “at the advanced age of 45, his health has begun deteriorating, and his future is not looking bright.”

A northern white rhinoceros with an Einiosaurus-like horn at the Dvůr Králové Zoo.

A northern white rhinoceros with an Einiosaurus-like horn at the Dvůr Králové Zoo.

As the team further shared, Sudan developed “an uncomfortable age related infection on his back right leg” at the end of last year, for which he was treated by a team of vets. Since then, Sudan’s health has recovered and the animal has resumed its normal way of functioning.

However, more bad news followed by February of this year, when the infection returned, more serious than the first time. Though Sudan was properly treated again, it reportedly now took him more time and he is constantly in the company of vets.

Since March 1st, the Ol Pjeta Conservancy team has continued to share updates on the animal’s condition. Sudan surprised everyone “by getting up, walking around and taking a delicious mud bath.” This was the good news shared on World Wildlife Day, which is observed on March 3rd. The observance annually celebrates wild animals and raises awareness on endangered species.

Comparative illustration of black (top) and white rhinos (bottom)

Comparative illustration of black (top) and white rhinos (bottom)

Besides Sudan, the two other northern white rhinos are females. Breeding efforts between Sudan and the females have been attempted in the past but without results, apparently. That has been due to the low sperm count in the case of Sudan, but it does not look any better with the females. One of them, named Fatu, is not fertile, and the other one, Najin, cannot withstand any hardship such as breeding attempts.

With not too many options left, scientists have considered various unorthodox measures to prevent this specific rhino subspecies from becoming totally instinct. Besides in-vitro options, there are the possibilities of using new stem cell tech gadgets for producing an embryo of a northern white rhino that would then be carried by a surrogate, the Smithsonian writes. Using the latter option may mean producing an animal hybrid of northern white rhino and another rhino subspecies. Another alternative might be producing a clone.

White Rhino Skull. Photo:Bernard DUPONT CC BY-SA 2.0

White Rhino Skull. Photo:Bernard DUPONT CC BY-SA 2.0

The fact that there is no existent northern white rhino in the wild, but only the three of its last kind at Ol Pejeta, means that, formally, the northern white rhino has been erased from the list of existing species, and is already counted as extinct. Challenges with preserving the rhino are not limited only to the northern white rhino, however. All subspecies of rhino are under threat. Conservationists agree that to preserve the rhino family in general, the threat of poachers should be eliminated.

Read another story from us: Wisdom, the world’s oldest known albatross, is still breeding at age 67

Sudan has helped raise a little more awareness on this pressing issue after he gained popularity last year–he reportedly ended up having a profile on the popular dating app, Tinder. Principally, this was done for a fund-raising campaign to develop new reproductive technology to save the rhinos. Now it seems we are only left with the hope that a way will be found for Sudan to become a father before it’s too late.