For a long time, the population of the northern white rhino has been in steep decline. The massive, horned herbivores’ numbers have dropped so quickly, it seemed that their extinction was all but inevitable.
With their numbers so catastrophically low, it would seem that they’re past the point of no return. But now, some scientists are working to bring the peaceful pachyderms back from beyond the brink…
There’s a quiet disaster that’s been going on for the last forty years that is so large, it’s hard to wrap your head around. For the past few decades, the earth has been in the midst of a “mass extinction event.” During this time, the rate of extinction of species has been 100 to 1,000 times higher than the natural background rates.
Massive Die Off
By some estimates, roughly 60 percent of the worlds vertebrate wildlife — animals that have back bones — have died since 1970. Dozens of species go extinct each day largely due to the influence of human beings. At the same time as we kill unsustainable numbers of animals, especially fish, for food, we are also polluting and destroying animals’ natural habitats.
While most of this mass extinction goes unnoticed by the general public, there are a few “fan favorite” species that are currently endangered or who have already gone extinct that tug at our collective heart strings.
Animals like the panda, tiger, and blue whale are all close to the brink of being lost forever. Creatures like the Baiji river dolphin, golden toad, and Pyrenean ibex have all gone over the edge in recent years. And just earlier this year, it seemed that that the northern white rhinoceros would be joining them soon.
For the northern white rhino, the threat of extinction started to become severe in the 1970s and 80s when demand for their horns skyrocketed. Powdered rhinoceros horn was used in traditional Asian medicine as a supposed cure for things like hangovers, fevers and even cancer. Owning and consuming rhino horn also came to be seen as a symbol of wealth.
Hunted to Death
With all the money to be made selling rhinoceros horn, northern white rhinos were hunted en masse. By 2016, there were just three northern white rhinos left in the world — one male and two females.
The male rhino’s name was Sudan and he was 43 years old, which is elderly in rhino years. The females were his daughter Najin, 26, and granddaughter, Fatu. Because of his advanced years, Sudan had all sorts of troubles, which in turn were troubles for the survival of his species.
During his final years, Sudan was unable to naturally mount a female and also suffered from a low sperm count, making procreation difficult. The two females had health problems as well and seemed to be unable to carry a pregnancy. Still, people held out hope that the remaining northern white rhinos would find a way to reproduce.
“There has been recorded mating between different pairs over the last few years but no conceptions,” said George Paul, deputy veterinarian at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a 700-acre enclosure in central Kenya where the remaining northern white rhinos lived.
The Apparent End
The hopes for natural reproduction would prove to be in vain when, two years after the northern white rhinoceros population dropped to three, it dropped again to two. In early 2018, the elderly Sudan could no longer stand and became extremely ill due to age-related problems. He was put down, effectively rendering the species extinct.
But while many people around the world mourned the inevitable loss of a beloved species, there were scientists who were hard at work to try and make sure that Sudan’s death wasn’t the end. For some time, they had been collecting and storing his sperm and the eggs of the remaining females, as well as the sperm and eggs of other northern white rhinos before they had passed. They were also collecting bits of skin and other tissues.
Test Tube Babies
The hope was that this genetic material could be used to one day revive the species using “in vitro fertilization” (IVF) and other techniques to create viable offspring in test tubes that could be reintroduced into the wild, even long after the last “natural” northern white rhinos died.
In a project that cost about $9 million scientists were able to use the sperm of a northern white rhino to fertilize the egg of the southern white rhino, its closest relative. Now they hope to use the same sort of techniques to create an embryo of pure northern white rhino eggs, which they would then implant into a surrogate.
Good Things Ahead
“Within three years, we hope to have the first [northern white] rhino calf born,” said Thomas Hildebrandt of Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, who co-led the project. Though the project may seem like it’s on its way to bringing back the species, there are a surprising group of people who are not happy with it.
Those people were conservationists, one of whom was Michaela Strachan, the host of the BBC’s environmental shows Springwatch and Countryfile. “The last male northern white rhino died recently which I found incredibly sad because I saw him two years ago with my son who touched it through the bars,” she said.
But describing the plans to produce new northern white rhinos through cloning, she described it as “absolute madness.” “I think we should be using the huge amount of money that costs on saving what we can save now,” she continued.
Some conservationists, on the other hand, were strongly opposed to “interfering in nature” by using IVF or other lab techniques to save the northern white rhino. “Many people working in the conservation area are very against using biotechnology,” said Hildebrandt.
But to him, the extinction of northern white rhinos had nothing to do with nature and everything to do with human interference in the first place. “The northern white rhino did not fail evolution. … It was slaughtered,” he said.
Let’s Fix It
The hunting of the northern white rhino “caused a disbalance in the ecosystem,” Hildebrandt continued, “and we have the tools in our hands to correct that. Time will tell if those tools are ultimately successful.
Things Must Change
In the meantime, there are still thousands of other species of animal that go extinct each year. If things keep heading in this direction, biologists believe that approximately half of all species will be extinct by the end of the century.