By Caroline Chebet, Giants Club African Conservation Fellow, The Standard.
Published 1 January 2019.
In March 2018, a dark cloud hung over the conservation world following the death of the only remaining male northern white rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki.
The death of the rhino, nicknamed Sudan, became a topic of discussion among conservationists and researchers across the world – a topic that also brought focus on Kenya as the home to the world’s remaining northern white rhinos.
The death of Sudan also brought to the limelight the crisis of endangered species and poaching trends.
The vulnerability of northern white rhino species also revealed efforts by researchers and scientists in protecting endangered species.
“The Last Male Standing. The Most Eligible Bachelor. These are some of the affectionate epitaphs that were bestowed on Sudan. Born in the wild in Sudan in 1973, Sudan has subsequently evolved into a legend – in part due to his status as the last male member of a rhino species,” Ol Pejeta Conservancy noted in the eulogy that drew the attention of conservationists across the world.
In April 2017, Sudan made headlines as the most ‘eligible bachelor in the world’, when Tinder, together with Ogilvy Africa, featured him on the dating app as part of a huge fundraising campaign.
The $85,000 raised was meant to support rhino propagation and rehabilitation.
Even as Sudan was laid to rest in the rhino cemetery within the conservancy created to document and raise awareness on the dangers of poaching, one could still sense the dangers of poaching even within the highly-guarded Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
The year also saw the death of 12 black rhinos following a botched translocation despite the conservation efforts that had seen the numbers doubling after 35 years.
In the country and global at large, black rhino numbers declined with Kenya recording a 98 per cent drop as the population plummeted from over 20,000 in 1970 to only 350 in 1983.
According to the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN), black rhinos are classified as Critically Endangered, meaning they still face high risk of extinction in the wild.
The sharp decline from poaching is attributed to the demand from Asian countries, particularly Vietnam, where the horns are used in the manufacture of traditional medicine and more commonly as a status symbol of wealth.
According to the figures by the World Wildlife Fund, black rhino numbers in Kenya has doubled since the catastrophic decline in 1980s, with poaching activities drastically reducing.
“The curve has now turned and the population stands at 750 in 2018,” WWF said in a report.
A kilo of rhino horn can fetch up to Sh6,000,000 on black market, which ironically, is just made of keratin, the same substance as human fingernails.
“Generally, rhinos are the most intensively monitored animals not only in the country but also globally, from private conservancies to the rhino sanctuaries and national parks in the country. They remain the iconic and symbolic animals,” said Samuel Mutisya, Olpejeta Conservancy head of wildlife, adding that there is a significant recovery of black rhinos in the country.
The death of the last northern white male rhino, however, became a catalyst for scientists to come up with technological innovations that could potentially bring back northern white rhinos from the brink of extinction.
“Such advances, for example IVF engineering, may hopefully be used one day in preventing the extinction of other species, breaking new ground in global conservation technology. Yet more credit for Sudan, albeit posthumously,” the conservancy noted.
The remaining two northern white rhinos in the world are females that are not able to breed naturally, a move that continue to draw fears of extinction across the world.
Najin is 28 and has weak knees, meaning she can neither bear the weight of a mounting male nor that of pregnancy while and her daughter Fatu is 18 and too, has weak knees and a uterine disorder, a situation that cannot allow for the embryo to be implanted successfully.
Currently, the scientists have come together to use In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) as the last resort to saving the species from extinction.
The scientists are planning to extract eggs from the two female northern whites and by using advanced reproductive techniques, including stem cell technology and IVF, create embryos that could be carried to term by surrogate rhino mothers.
“We expect the process to begin sooner once everything is set,” said Mr Mutisya.
The semen from northern white rhinos have long been collected and are being kept in specialised laboratories in Italy.
The procedure of collecting eggs, he said, will be a unique one where a team of specialists will conduct and thereafter the eggs will be flown within 24 hours to be stored in the specialised laboratories in Italy.
Although the scientists are hopeful, challenges are still expected.
As memoir, a film featuring Sudan will be launched in 2019, as part of raising awareness on the plight of Critically Endangered species and also raise awareness on dangers of poaching.
“Despite his later inability to breed, there is no denying that he now goes down as the most prolific rhino ambassador in history. Sudan’s story has been chronicled in movies, documentaries, news feature segments and innumerable other media platforms. Even before he made his debut on Tinder, this gentle unassuming creature was beloved by the thousands of visitors who trooped from all over the world to meet him,” the tribute read.
Read the full story here. This story is reproduced here as part of the Giants Club African Conservation Journalism Fellowships, a Space for Giants programme to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in the four countries where we work.