The Northern white rhino is now one step closer to extinction, following the sad announcement of the death of Suni at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy in October 2014. Suni died aged 34 years-old and was not a victim of poaching; he was found dead in his boma by rangers, although the cause of his death is currently unclear.
There are now only six Northern white rhinos remaining in the entire world.
It’s important not to confuse the Northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) with the Southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum), which is a genetically distinct subspecies. The Southern white rhino now numbers around 20,405 individuals, having been rescued from the brink of extinction due to intensive conservation efforts in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, after numbers fell to just 50 individuals in the late 19th century.
Let’s take a look at the history of the Northern white rhino and the prospects for the subspecies today.
The rise and fall of the Northern white rhino
Northern white rhinos were once found in abundance, throughout Southern Chad, the Central African Republic, South-western Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and North-western Uganda.
As late as 1960, there were still around 2,360 Northern white rhinos remaining. However widespread poaching and civil wars in both the Democratic of Congo and neighbouring Sudan decimated the population, and in 1984 only about 15 individuals survived, all in Garamba National Park, DRC. This triggered a joint international rescue action by a number of international agencies, and the rhino numbers slowly started to recover. Under strict protection, by 1994 the population had grown to approximately 30 animals and these numbers remained roughly stable until July 2003.
However poaching pressure increased again and, during an intensive aerial survey of the Park carried out in July 2004, just 17-22 animals were counted. A stakeholder meeting was held in July 2004, and new partners joined the effort to conserve the Park, with an emergency action plan established.
Sadly by December 2004, it had not been possible to halt the decline, and a proposal was made to the DRC Government to translocate a small group of five rhinos to a safe temporary home, possibly in Kenya, in order to prevent the extinction of the subspecies. Although the Government at first agreed to this proposal, it eventually declined following widespread protest by ill-informed politicians. This, together with increasing insecurity and serious management problems in the Park, led to a suspension of all conservation support for Garamba.
Save the Rhino had supported Garamba National Park through the International Rhino Foundation for many years; however in 2005 both organisations felt they had to withdraw support, predominantly due to the lack of realistic recovery of the subspecies due to such low population numbers.
By 2006, surveys confirmed the presence of only four Northern white rhinos in Garamba National Park. No live rhino have been seen since 2006 or signs of live rhino (spoor or dung) reported since 2007 despite intensive systematic foot surveys. The subspecies is now considered probably extinct in the DRC.
Northern white rhinos in captivity
At that time, six northern white rhinoceros lived in the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. In December 2009, four of the six rhinos (Najin, Fatu, Sudan and Suni) were translocated to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where it was hoped that the more natural habitat, climate and dietary conditions would stimulate the rhinos to mate, breed and offer a chance of recovery for the subspecies.
One of the two remaining rhinos in the Czech Republic died in late 2011, meaning only one elderly Northern white rhino remains in Dvůr Králové Zoo. Two other captive Northern white rhinos, Angalifu and Nola, currently reside in San Diego Zoo in the USA, however both animals are now very old and this captive population is not breeding.
The future of the subspecies
With only six Northern white rhinos remaining in the world, the fate of the subspecies is grim. Suni was one of the only two breeding northern white rhinos left in the world, which means the chance of breeding amongst the sub-species is even more unlikely.
Genetic material has been collected from the last remaining Northern white rhinos, which could be used for future breeding interventions. In October 2014, Ol Pejeta Conservancy also announced that an expert committee had been formed to ensure the survival of the subspecies. Under guidance of the committee, Ol Pejeta announced that they have ‘’penned Najin and Fatu, the Northern white females, with a Southern white rhino male. Should they breed successfully, it is hoped that the females can produce several inter-crossed offspring.’’
According to Ol Pejeta Conservancy:
Though the inter-crossed offspring will not be pure Northern white rhino, this will enable us to conserve the Northern white rhino genes in a habitat and environment that they have evolved in. In future, there is potential for the inter-crossed offspring to be bred back with pure Northern white rhinos – thereby increasing the proportion of locally adapted Northern white rhino genes in future generations of a healthy white rhino population. It is also our hope that after conceiving with a Southern white rhino male, it will be easier for Najin and Fatu to conceive a pure Northern white rhino offspring through techniques such as artificial insemination.
What we can learn from the Northern white rhino
The decline of the Northern white rhinos is a sad, sorry history of political conflict in their former range states, and it is important to ensure that the remaining rhino species do not go the same way.
Worryingly several other rhino subspecies have also disappeared in recent years; the Western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was declared extinct in 2011, and the Javan rhino also confirmed extinct in Vietnam during the same year.
The plight of the Northern white rhino demonstrates the importance of not having ‘’all your eggs in one basket’; it is essential that rhino species with such low numbers are not concentrated in one area. We could be telling a very different story today if the DRC government had allowed some of the Northern white rhinos to be translocated when the animals numbered 30 individuals. A second “safety net” population could have led to the subspecies’ recovery. Decisive collaborative action is essential when species or subspecies plummet to such low numbers.
At present the Javan rhino is thought to be the world’s rarest mammal, with only around 58-61 individuals remaining in Indonesia’s Ujung Julon National Park. There are very real concerns that about the risk of disease and population’s close proximity to the active volcano Anak Krakatau. The 1883 eruption of Krakatau severely affected Ujung Kulon and the surrounding area.
Efforts are currently underway to expand the habitat available for Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon, which would hopefully allow the population increase to such an extent that some rhinos could eventually be translocated to form a second population at a separate site.
While the fate of the Northern white rhino is uncertain, the world still has the opportunity to prevent any further rhino species extinctions. With rhino poaching reaching record levels, all five rhino species need our support now more than ever.
Sources and further reading
IUCN Red list – White rhino
Ol Pejeta Conservancy – Ol Pejeta Conservancy loses one of its Northern white rhinos