Can we save the Northern white rhino?

When it comes to rescuing a species or sub-species from extinction, prevention is better than cure.

Sadly, Northern white rhinos are now functionally extinct. Even if much-hyped innovations like rhino IVF are perfected in the future, it will likely come too late to save this sub-species. With only three, inter-related individuals remaining, all of which are too old to mate or have reproductive problems preventing them from conceiving naturally, the death of the last Northern white rhino is only a matter of time.

With small chance of healthy new calves, and limited place in their historic range to go, Save the Rhino believes that the best outcome will be to put our efforts and funding – including research into IVF - into saving the species which do still have a chance.

We can learn lessons from the Northern white rhinos’ sad demise – and stop the same fate befalling their Critically Endangered Javan and Sumatran cousins.

Northern white rhino - Ol Pejeta Conservancy (C) SRI

The Northern white rhino sub-species

Northern white rhinos are one of two sub-species of the white rhino, the other being the Southern white rhino. Also known as the Northern square-lipped rhinoceros, it has the scientific name of Ceratotherium simum cottoni. Currently, the sub-species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species and “Possibly Extinct in the Wild”

Northern white rhinos and Southern white rhinos ostensibly look similar and to the untrained eye are difficult to tell apart. The two sub-species do, however, display small but consistent differences in the limited research conducted on the diminishing population throughout the 20th and early 21st Centuries.

Northern white rhinos are believed to be slightly smaller than their Southern counterparts, with less prominent folding in their skin. Researchers point to their shorter legs relative to body length, higher head carriage, a less concave shape to their cranium, and the lack of the fine hair seen all over Southern white’s bodies; though hair does appear on the tail, muzzle, ears, belly and other localised areas (Groves, Fernando & Robovsky, 2010; Groves 1972; and Owen-Smith 2013).

According to geneticists, the two sub-species geographically split around a million years ago (Groves, Fernando and Robovsky, 2010), with Southern whites based in Southern Africa and Northern whites living in Central Africa.

Northern white rhinos once roamed in Uganda, Chad, across pre-partition Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The path to extinction

Rhinos across Africa first went into decline during colonial-era mass hunting and habitat loss as land was turned over for agriculture, livestock, plantations and urban developments. As the poaching crisis took hold in the 70s and 80s, fuelled by demand for Traditional Chinese Medicine and Yemeni dagger handles, Northern white rhinos (and black rhinos) became extinct in Uganda under Idi Amin’s reign, and Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Chad.

The last wild Northern white rhinos lived in a single population in the eastern DRC’s Garamba National Park until the early 2000s. Throughout the 1990s, numbers in Garamba National Park fluctuated between 20 and 30 rhinos. Two attempts were made to try and relocate animals to safer countries in Africa to create a second, “back-up” breeding population. The first, in 1995, involved a proposal to move some animals from DRC to another African country, provided that the two zoos holding NWRs (Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic and San Diego in the USA) sent their animals to join them. The plan failed when the zoos decided not to move their animals.

The second, in 2005, foundered when a disaffected former Garamba employee stirred up regional dissent after the Congolese government had given its consent to a move of 4 or 5 animals from Garamba to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Ideally, the two zoos would then have moved their NWRs to Kenya to join this founder population. When the Congolese government changed its mind, this plan also failed. Realistically, this was the last chance to create a breeding population.

Garamba National Park, situated in eastern Congo, was the epicentre of violence during the Congolese Civil War, and suffered from multitudes of rebel and Janjaweed militia groups crossing its porous border. Harvesting ivory and rhino horn was one method these groups apparently used to raise funds for their operations. The last rhino conservation programme in Garamba National Park effectively closed in 2006, when fighting flared up again due to safety fears and the fact that the rhino population had declined to four, and was no longer a viable population with enough animals from which to breed. At the time, the Lord’s Resistance Army and Janjaweed raiders were operating in the Park, and are often blamed for poaching the last Northern white rhinos.

Surveys on the ground and by air in 2008 did not find any live animals or carcasses and, with no verifiable sightings subsequently recorded, it is assumed that the wild population is likely extinct.

What is the present situation?

In 2009, four Northern white rhinos were relocated to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the hope that their new surroundings, and other rhino companions, would stimulate natural breeding efforts. Unfortunately the last remaining Northern white rhinos were all inter-related, and experienced various fertility problems and, since then, the animals have failed to naturally reproduce. Now, some conservationists are hoping to use Advanced Reproductive Technologies, like in vitro fertilisation, to help the animals breed.

Can Advanced Reproductive Technologies save the Northern white rhino? And what issues do they throw up?

IVF in rhinos is incredibly complex and it is unlikely that the methods required for its success will be put in place before the last Northern white rhino dies. Fewer than 10 rhino births have resulted from Artificial Insemination in the last 15 years, and only two embryos have been successfully created. One grew to two cells, and the other three. IVF has never been used successfully in rhino conservation and research has a long way to go until it becomes a proven method.

Furthermore, each rhino species has a unique physiology. For IVF to work successfully, it needs to mimic the uterine environment of the animal. As it is highly likely that all surviving Northern white individuals will have died by the time research has progressed to the right point, scientists plan to use a Southern white rhino as a surrogate, which may bring challenges of its own.

Save the Rhino has an enormous amount of respect for the hugely talented scientists working on this project from San Diego Zoo and Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. The project has stimulated debate around the ethics of recreating extinct species, and whether this is the best use of funding available for conservation. Whilst it is unlikely that funding for the project has detracted from money available for in situ conservation, it is clear that anti-poaching work in African and Asia is increasingly expensive as the poaching threat has escalated, whilst demand reduction in consumer markets receives a fraction of all spending on wildlife conservation.

A practical concern for any future Northern white rhinos successfully bred through IVF is the question of where they would live. Much of the sub-species’ former range has lost rhinos in its entirety, with limited conservation programmes or expertise for managing a rhino population, and large-scale habitat loss. In any case, for rhino population to be genetically viable, a minimum of 20, unrelated “founder individuals” are needed. Otherwise, a population becomes inbred and prone to genetic abnormalities – and fertility problems.

Advanced Reproductive Techniques might not save, or resurrect, Northern white rhinos but, that said, there are other rhino species which are in peril, and technological advancements could help these species in the future, for example the Sumatran or Javan rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis and Rhinoceros sondaicus), both of which number fewer than 100 individuals and the former of which is precipitously declining

What lessons can we learn from the sad demise of the Northern white rhino?

Lessons learned are being put into practice with other Critically Endangered species, making sure they don’t dip below 20 individuals, that habitat is secured, governments, zoos and international actors cooperate, and breeding is intensively managed.

The Indonesian island of Java is home to an estimated 61-63 Critically Endangered Javan rhinos. Their habitat is being expanded with strong backing from the authorities, and due to the proximity of an active volcano and potential for natural disaster or disease to wipe them out, efforts are focused on allowing the population to diversify their range. Future plans include the creation of a second population to mitigate any stochastic threats, but that will take significant political will and funding.

On the neighbouring island of Sumatra, the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park is home to seven of the 100-or-so remaining Sumatran rhinos. The intensive breeding programme, within heavily protected natural habitat, has seen two new calves born, one in 2012 and another in 2016.

The team at the International Rhino Foundation are cryopreserving fibroblasts for Sumatran rhinos to preserve options for the future, and Dr Oliver Ryder’s lab in San Diego has kindly provided training in the methods to extract and preserve the cells. But the technology, which could help to increase numbers very slightly in the big scheme of things, may not be in place in time for Sumatran rhinos either. For these species, stringent protection in Intensive Protection Zones inside national parks, consolidation of fragmented populations, expanded captive breeding, and creating a sense of ownership in local people offer the most hope.

With continued strict protection of both the remaining rhinos and their habitat, over the next century the populations will hopefully eventually be able to recover to at least 2,000 to 2,500 individuals, as this number is estimated by population biologists as a minimum requirement for long-term survival of a species such as the Sumatran rhino

Efforts to save the Northern white rhinos only received buy-in from the right people and organisations when the sub-species was already in a terminal decline. Now we’re better prepared – and taking action to make sure other Critically Endangered rhinos don’t suffer the same fate.

With thanks to Dr Kees Rookmaker, Chief Editor of the Rhino Resource Centre, for help with this article. 

Photo credit: Mark Cowardine

Northern white rhino - Ol Pejeta - Credit Mark Carwardine