At the Deathbed of Sudan, the Last Male White Rhino
Before vets put the gentle giant down in Kenya this week, Aidan Hartley attended the deathbed of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros, to see up close what extinction looks and feels like. A regal king he lay on his side, all 3,000 kilos of him. For millennia, his species had been one of the largest of land mammals. At the grand old age of 45, his back legs could no longer support him, then he had developed a nasty lesion. Finally his vast grey bulk became covered with what looked like sores.
"I expected Sudan’s hide to be rough and petrified. I thought of Kipling’s rhinoceros, bad-tempered on account of the crumbs hidden inside his skin by the Parsee on the Altogether Uninhabited Island in the Red Sea." said Aidan while stroking Sudans back. To his surprise, Sudan was very soft to pat and stroke. Born in the wild, he had been captured as a baby. After a life with humans in zoos, he was as playful as a pony. With a swish of his piggy tail, he laid his hairy long ears flat against the huge spatula skull and blew out of his square lips with stentorian sighs. He seemed finished. Sometimes, a tear ran down his dusty face.
The great auk, the dodo, the quagga, the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian tiger — in childhood we learn about the extinctions of these creatures as wisetales of human folly. Our elders tell us to love nature and protect the earth, and yet we make mistakes time and time again. Extinctions occur all around us, usually of little creatures such as tree frogs — some going the way of the Norwegian blue parrot even before science has a chance to recognize them. Yet we face a wave of megafauna extinctions. The West African sub-species of black rhino was declared gone only in 2011, while two Asian species of rhino, the Javan and Sumatran, have dwindled into the dozens. It's a sobering reality for Rhinos, and while conservation efforts will continue with hope and perseverance, some scientists fear it's too late.
For Sudan’s northern whites — cousins of the commoner southern white — it is too late, except for a Jurassic Park-style miracle. Scientists have devised a plan to save the species by selecting healthy rhino sperm — from both Sudan and his son Suni — currently being stored in dry ice, and using it to perform the in vitro fertilization of an egg known as ‘intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection’. The people on Ol Pejeta told Aidan that unlike cows or humans, rhinos have peculiar corkscrew-shaped cervixes and this makes obtaining eggs that much more difficult — on top of which, the two females, Fatou and Najin, are infertile and must be chemically stimulated. Even if they do obtain eggs, nobody so far has successfully produced a fertilised item that might grow into a viable foetus.
Ol Pejeta, with assistance from overseas zoos, has not given up. When Sudan died they harvested his testicles. Even now, his frozen sperm and the females’ eggs planned to be extracted might still save the day — and how uplifting that would be for all of us. If we do not even try to invest properly in saving this extraordinary species, we will never know if it can be done. In that case all of us will have failed: the famous conservationists so fond of attending black-tie gala dinners to accept prizes for services to African wildlife; the Africans who allowed the despoliation of their own environments — and the international agencies that hold conferences producing thin air.
Heavy rain began to fall. They put a blanket over him. His keepers stood around the resting giant. Soon it was all over. Outside the enclosure, Fatou and Najin lay in the mud dozing, the last two of their kind in the world.