Can we save the Northern white rhino?

Image of 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 two related females remaining, 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 that 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.

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 and 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 1970s and 80s, fuelled by demand for Traditional Chinese Medicine and Yemeni dagger handles, Northern white rhinos (and black rhinos) became extinct in Uganda, the 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 animals failed to naturally reproduce.

Now, there are just two individuals left, a mother and daughter, and some conservationists are hoping to use Advanced Reproductive Technologies, like in vitro fertilisation (IVF), to help the animals breed. So far, 12 viable Northern white rhino embyros have been created using reproductive cells recovered from the current female and previous male rhinos.

Can Advanced Reproductive Technologies save the Northern white rhino?

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 a handful of embryos have been successfully created. 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 the last remaining Northern white rhinos are unable to carry a calf due to reproductive issues, 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 the 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 that are in peril, and technological advancements could help these species in the future. For example, Sumatran and Javan rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis and Rhinoceros sondaicus), both number fewer than 100 individuals.

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 74 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 the 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 remaining Sumatran rhinos. The intensive breeding programme, within a 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 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 the 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. 

22 thoughts on “Can we save the Northern white rhino?

  1. Jeff wolf, I am speaking as a 5th child and I would like to say I like existing. Besides, the reason the northern white rhino is going extinct is because of poaching. I once read the shadow children series. Granted, it was about world hunger and not extinction, but it shows that birth control isn’t the answer and even after the world population was cut in half, the problem still happened. It was because overpopulation wasn’t the problem, people were. It’s the same here. Besides. When city’s get wealthy and economical strong, lots people tend to have less children, if not any. Italy is a great example of this. We simply just need to stop destroying nature and start helping it. In fact, most countries have already started doing this. Keep in mind that change doesn’t happen overnight, so that’s why the northern white rhino is going extinct.

  2. I don’t understand what’s so hard put the sperm and egg combination into the female rhino voila it’s pregnant and it will grow into a baby northern white rhino and when it’s older mate with the southern ones and save the species simple as that it’s already a thing what technology is there to perfect

  3. It is sad what humanity is doing to the environment and species such as the Rhino. Our ignorance and arrogance is causing many species to become extinct. This will lead to our own extinction.

    Reducing our carbon output will not help the environment due to the fact there are too many humans on earth. Most of the problems with the environment and species becoming extinct can be traced back to our own populations. The only thing that can save the environment and all of the species on earth including ourselves is to control our populations.

  4. Its such a pity that Uganda as one the native countries of the northern white rhino will exist only to speak and write about the magnificent species.

  5. i just heard,if the last northern white rhino male is dies in kenya..
    im sorry to hear that,till i search info abut other rhino in the world.
    RIP sudan

  6. Again the ultimate proof that humanity is unable to care for the earth. As long as we do not want to live ecologically, we slowly consume the earth. Will we leave a beautiful piece of earth with enough biodiversity for our children? We have taken away the chance for the northern white rhinoceros. A sad moment … we have to keep our flora and fauna better so that we can also let our children enjoy it … that is not a choice but an obligation.

  7. The human mind is universally capable of the simple math needed to understand this sickening tragedy. Our species won’t limit themselves to 2 children. The third child is a death sentence for an quickening list of botanical and zoological species. Here’s what will happen to the earth in the next 100 years, or 4 generations of human-un-kind. Using two individuals as the base, they become 2+3, 3+9, 9+27,and 27+81. Now for the reality multiply each of the above numbers times today’s 3.5 billion men + 3.5 billion women, making the next century home for a hoard of 378 billion. Even if we hold ourselves to 2 children there is no guarantee that the earth can support 7 billion for another hundred years. While if we average one child our human population will half several times almost as quickly. That’s a chance to save ourselves and our current state of biodiversity. A zoo, no matter how expansive the tract of land, cannot preserve the earth. Habitat has to be preserved everywhere for all species and humankind has to be a natural part of it, not an un-natural plague and parasite on it. We cannot have another White Rhino tragedy, we can fight a war to stop it, but it will be a losing war if human population and quality habitat for all species is not re-established. You are last hope for this. You have to say every day to everyone you talk to, “”Population reduction now””, “”One child now””, “”No more extinctions now””, “”Natural habitat for all species now””, “”no more chemical warfare against nature now””, “”no more destruction of the air, water, earth, or space now””. If you don’t have the courage to do this you are just another reason why the earth as we know it will die and die soon. You can believe these numbers will be modified somehow some other way, but you cannot believe that mass extinctions will be stopped without dramatic changes in human society. In the human war against God’s natural earth, join nature’s side now.

  8. Hi, I am a animal protection observer.Recently, I find out the situation about rhino, and I am so sad to face this as a human being on earth.But also, I am thinking, if scientist keep those dead rhinos dna, maybe one day, they will have chance to bring back.So I hope my advice will help you to save rhino.I read news that rhinos are killed 1000+ each year since 2010s.And since the porcher only need horns, I am wondering, if the scientists/guards collected their dnas, I think it is very important, cuz if in future, they are able to clone them, but not enough DNA diversity. They still wont survive and increse their species.

  9. Thank you for pointing out reality. Save the Sumatran rhino. Save the Javan Rhino. The issue is the fault of all those who pay money for Rhino horn, certainly not conservation organizations who take on tbe work we should all be doing. Thanks again.

  10. You can’t blame others now. It’s too late for that now. We should find a way to prevent this species from going extinct. If IVF doesn’t work, save as much DNA for future resurrection. If scientists can do it with wooly mammoths, they can do it with the white rhino.

  11. Its the failure of the organisations like yours, you should have taken appropriate steps before coming to such sad and bad situation, how can somebody kill these species right uder your nose.
    Also you guyz should have at least kept 10-15 healthy species in captivity to reverse such scenario.
    Im sorry that I’m saying all this but today I’m really upset after knowing that these rhino’s have same fate as that of black rhino.

  12. How sad , this is the first article that I have read on this topic that called the situation with the northern whites for what it is , they are extinct and all the talk of rhino ivf ect is nothing short of wishful thinking .

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