Aidan Hartley

Witness to an extinction

Attempts to save the species will continue, but it’s not looking hopeful

Witness to an extinction
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 Laikipia, Kenya

Before vets put him down in Kenya this week, I attended the deathbed of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros, to observe up close what extinction looks like. Like a king he lay on his side, all 2,800 kilos of him. For millennia, his species had been one of the largest of land mammals. At the grand old age of 45, his back legs had given out, then he had developed a nasty lesion. Finally his vast grey bulk became covered with what looked like bedsores.

I expected Sudan’s hide to be rough and petrified. I thought of Kipling’s rhinoceros, bad-tempered on account of the crumbs hidden inside his skin by the Parsee on the Altogether Uninhabited Island in the Red Sea. To my surprise, Sudan was soft to pat and stroke. Born in the wild, he had been captured as a baby. After a life with humans in zoos, he was as friendly as a pony. With a swish of his piggy tail, he laid his hairy long ears flat against the huge spatula skull and blew out of his square lips with stentorian sighs. He seemed fed up. Sometimes tears ran down his dusty face.

Surrounding Sudan in the enclosure stood his weeping Kenyan retainers, Esokon, Jojo, Zachary and James. Here on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the shadow of Mount Kenya, these men had stayed with him night and day since he arrived from a Czech zoo in 2009. That was when last-ditch human attempts had been ramped up to breed him with the only two surviving northern white rhino females, his daughter Najin, and granddaughter Fatu. Suni, Sudan’s son, was also around for a while — but then he died. The rhinos had not bred well in zoos and scientists believed they would do better in the wild. The 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta, in Laikipia, is among Africa’s best-known private conservation areas in which to protect them against poachers. It had to be Kenya because in the species’ true home — Congo, South Sudan and Uganda — gunmen had exterminated all northern whites to stock China’s apothecaries with their aphrodisiacs.

The great auk, the dodo, the quagga, the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian tiger — in childhood we learn about the extinctions of these creatures as legends of human folly. Extinctions occur all the time, usually of little creatures such as tree frogs — some going the way of the Norwegian blue parrot even before science has a chance to name them. Yet we face a wave of megafauna extinctions. The West African sub-species of black rhino was declared gone only in 2011, while two Asian species of rhino, the Javan and Sumatran, have dwindled into the dozens.

For Sudan’s northern whites — cousins of the commoner southern white — it is too late, barring a Jurassic Park-style miracle. Scientists have devised a plan to save the species by selecting healthy rhino sperm — from both Sudan and his son Suni — currently being stored in dry ice, and using it to perform the in vitro fertilisation of an egg known as ‘intracytoplasmic sperm injection’. The people on Ol Pejeta told me that unlike cows or humans, rhinos have peculiar corkscrew-shaped cervixes and this makes obtaining eggs that much more difficult — on top of which, the two females, Fatou and Najin, are infertile and must be chemically stimulated. Even if they do obtain eggs, nobody so far has successfully produced a fertilised item that might grow into a viable foetus.

At least the boffins were willing to try. To pursue these complicated procedures would cost around £7 million. To me this sounds cheap when it comes to rescuing the second- or third-largest land mammal on the planet. It is a drop in the ocean compared with what British dog owners spend on their pooches — £10.6 billion a year — which includes toys, treats, shampooing, dog massages and ‘pawlates’ (canine pilates).

Big conservation organisations, the people you’d think could support this endeavour, simply refused to donate the money needed to save northern whites. They said funds were limited and instead of saving Sudan’s kind, their argument was to fall back into retreat and see if they could rescue the remaining African black rhino (less than 5,500) together with southern whites (21,000).

For Sudan’s supporters, focused on events at Ol Pejeta, the situation became desperate. Last year an advertising firm unveiled a campaign promoting the ingenious idea that Sudan was joining Tinder in his bid to breed. It announced, ‘The Most Eligible Bachelor in the World… Swipe right to help him find a match’. That directed browsers to a fundraising website, which received so much traffic it crashed. Instead of the hoped for £7 million, the stunt raised a measly £60,000, which British dog owners would spend in a few hours buying birthday cakes for their pets.

Ol Pejeta, with assistance from overseas zoos, has not given up. When Sudan died they harvested his testicles. Even now, his frozen sperm and the females’ eggs yet to be extracted might still save the day — and how uplifting that would be for all of us. If we do not even try to invest properly in saving this extraordinary species, we will never know if it can be done. In that case all of us will have failed: the famous conservationists so fond of attending black-tie gala dinners to accept prizes for services to African wildlife; the Africans who allowed the despoliation of their own environments — and the international agencies that hold conferences producing thin air.

If the world wishes to protect endangered species like rhinoceroses, of course, it is not just about rescuing individual animals such as Sudan and more about ensuring the conservation of the great landscapes in which such magnificent creatures can thrive without threat. To do that, we must invest more money and ideas in wildlife conservation. There is no reason why Laikipia, with its rhinos, elephants and lions, cannot be as popular as Yosemite and the Lake District, generating similar revenues for locals. Instead this year the UK government, represented in Kenya by a Vogon-like High Commissioner, has shut down millions of pounds worth of vital support for Laikipia’s wildlife-friendly conservancies and ranches.

At Sudan’s end, I saw the real heroes as his keepers, who were inconsolable. After I left the enclosure, I was told he miraculous- ly got up, wandered about and took a long, cool mud bath. He munched on his favourite foods, hay and carrots, and at Ol Pejeta people’s spirits were briefly lifted. On the weekend he fell over, and by Monday the vets from the Wildlife Service said it was time to rescue him from further suffering.

Heavy rain began to fall. They put a blanket over him. His keepers stood around him. Soon it was all over. Outside the enclosure, Fatou and Najin lay in the mud dozing, the last two of their kind in the world.