December 2022

Northern White Rhinoceros

Press secretary at Animat Habitat

One of the more incomprehensible acts that we humans, as a species, have to face up to is the extirpation of a once thriving group of animals, such as the northern white rhinoceros. Once upon a time… there were thousands of this subspecies living across Africa. The crisis of poaching that has supplied an illegal trade in rhino horn has made the plight of the northern white rhinoceros particularly devastating. Now the next candidates for oblivion.

The Last Northern White Rhinoceros

In 2009, a last chapter was written for the northern white rhinoceros. There were just eight left. They were all in zoos and there was this idea to fly two males and two females back to Kenya in a last ditch effort to save the subspecies. Both black and white rhinoceros have been driven to the brink of extinction. For the northern white subspecies, extinction is now only a matter of time. When Suni passed away in 2014, Sudan was the last male northern white rhinoceros. This chapter ended at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2018 when Sudan died surrounded by people who loved him after suffering from age-related complications. Sudan was 45. [1]

Not just the keepers but the rangers, too, they spend their lives with these animals, more than they do with their own families. And the moment I saw Jojo Wachira leaning in, and the keepers were saying goodbye to Sudan… Sudan kind of then leaned his massive heavy head right back into Jojo’s head. To me that was the story. It was not just this story of the last male northern white rhino on the planet dying, it was actually the deep bond that these keepers had, and it became this symbol of what humans can be. In that image, [you can see that] we did this to these animals. Humans are the ones that made this happen. We can be the great destroyer or the best protectors.
— Ami Vitale, Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic photographer interviewed on Boots on the Ground (podcast, September 2021)

A wildlife ranger comforts Sudan moments before he passed away, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya (March 2018) © Ami Vitale

A wildlife ranger comforts Sudan moments before he passed away, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya (March 2018) © Ami Vitale [amivitale.com]

Ami Vitale, Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic photographer, was interviewed by Dibblex Lesalon on the Kenya-based podcast Boots on the Ground in September 2021, where she was asked to share the story behind her photographs of Sudan before his death. Vitale has documented a number of wildlife conservation stories in Kenya, perhaps most notably her short film Shaba (2021) tells the story of an elephant in a way to support the foundation of Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. In the interview with Lesalon, Vitale spoke about how Kenya has been doing a lot of things right. She has seen some of the many ways Kenya has been a leader when you look at conservation, with the government committing to conservation and with the community coming together to see value in conservation and so on. “There are challenges and a lot of missteps,” Vitale acknowledged, “but there are also a lot of great lessons to be learned—there is so much noise in the world, this is a really good time for all of us to take a moment and be quiet… And listen. Truly listen.” [2]

It is thought as many as twenty million elephants once roamed the continent, but many have been killed for their tusks—their ivory used for entirely ornimental purposes. Now just 350,000 elephants remain. […] But of all Africa's remaining wildlife, it is the rhinoceros that has been most affected by poaching. In the Far East, its horn is used as traditional medicine. All of Africa's rhinos are now under threath, but for one subspecies it is likely to be too late. The northern white rhinoceros is facing extinction.
— David Attenborough. (2019) Seven Worlds, One Planet, e/7: Africa. BBC Studios

To be, and then not to be anymore. The extinction of the northern white rhinoceros will inevitably mark an important moment in the history of humankind. We now hold a responsibility to examine why an extinction like this has happened and what that will mean for us humans, as a species, as well. We must carry on the story of the northern white rhinoceros as a reminder that there are other ways to look at wildlife. Stories like this can help remind people how we are all interconnected—all inextricably linked to the natural world.

The black rhino – also known as the hook-lipped rhino – is categorized by the IUCN as critically endangered and has declined by more than ninety-five per cent since the 1960s. The black rhino is made up of four subspecies: the western black rhino, eastern black rhino, south-western black rhino and southern black rhino. The white rhino – misnamed for its wide mouth – is categorized by the IUCN as near threatened, and has been functionally reduced to one subspecies: southern white rhinos. [3]

These two females are the last of their kind. When they die, an entire subspecies that inhabited the earth for millions of years will have disappeared forever.
— David Attenborough (cont'd)

Fatu and Najin graze, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya (March 2018) © Ami Vitale

Fatu and Najin graze, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya (March 2018) © Ami Vitale [amivitale.com]

Sudan, Najin and Fatu

Once upon a time… The northern white rhinoceros was found across countries in Africa south of the Sahara. Poaching, intensified by civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Sudan, has devastated the rhino population. In the 1960s there were 2,300 northern white rhinoceros remaining. Today there are two.

These last survivors are the daughter and granddaughter of Sudan, Najin and her daughter Fatu. They live out their lives in the presence of armed guards at all times.

We watch them every day, looking at extinction. There is nothing much they can do except accept the fate that you have allowed them to be in.
— James Mwenda, ranger at Ol Pejeta conservancy, Kenya

“Saving The Last Northern White Rhino” 360 VR © Black Bean [vimeo.com]

Najin and Fatu are mother and daughter. It is no longer possible for the northern white rhinoceros to reproduce naturally. They are the terminus of a lineage that split-off hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Still some scientists have not given up. In August 2020 at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, African Wildlife Foundation funded a program by the Kenya Wildlife Service and scientists from Germany and the Czech Republic to collect eggs from these last two females. And so began an epiloge in the human story of the northern white rhinoceros. The aim is to rewrite the fate of the northern subspecies with a lot of help from the southern white rhinoceros and with a lot of time. Najin was retired from the program in 2021. [4,5]

1 Ami Vitale. The Last Goodbye. 2019. Website Link

2 Reteti Elephant Sanctuary. Shaba, a short film by Ami Vitale. 2021. Website Link

3 IUCN Red List. Conservation efforts bring cautious hope for African rhinos. IUCN. March 2020. Website Link

4 Seven Worlds, One Planet. ‘These Two Rhinos Are The Last Of Their Kind.’ BBC Earth. 2019. Video Link

4 Seven Worlds, One Planet. ‘Living on the brink’ BBC Earth. 2019. Website Link