You may have heard that the last male northern white rhino died on 20th March 2018. The world mourned his loss. But we are essentially to blame for the plight of these species. War, habitat loss and poaching for rhino horn has decimated populations. It is only now when this species is on the brink of extinction that we realise the importance of these species.
Whilst Sudan was alive, he was watched over a team of veterinarians, conservationists and armed guards. Sudan made people aware of the plight of the northern white rhino. In short, he touched the world. He made people aware of the importance of preserving species which are close to extinction. A ceremony was held for Sudan after his death.
Now Kenya is focusing on preserving this rhino subspecies. There are only two female northern white rhinos left in the world, however, they are unable to themselves carry calves. They are Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter. It is hoped that in vitro fertilisation can save this subspecies. Even if their eggs lead to a number of healthy northern white rhino calves, a population originating solely from these two rhinos would be lacking in genetic diversity. This is because to sustain a healthy population with genetic diversity requires a certain number of individuals in a population to be alive, and in this case there are only two individuals of this species left. This is where stem cells come into the equation. Scientists plan to use frozen cell cultures from 12 northern white rhinos, including Sudan, to create stem sells which can be altered into becoming egg and sperm and create an embryo.
However, these technical advances researchers are discussing might take years to actually be able to be carried out. Many people believe it is too late. Save the Rhino, an organisation dedicated to saving rhino species, believes that the best outcome would be to put efforts and funding, including research into IVF, into saving rhino species which still have a chance. They suggest that Northern white rhinos are now functionally extinct, and that advances in stem cell and IVF technology will probably come too late to save this species.
So what have we learned from the fate of the Northern white rhino? Scientists are making sure other Critically Endangered species don’t plummet to below 20 individuals (to ensure genetic diversity), that habitat is secured, and that breeding is intensively managed. For example, Sumatran rhinos and their natural habitats are heavily protected. It is hoped that this continued strict protection over the next century, the populations will eventually be able to recover to around 2000 to 2500 individuals; the number estimated by population biologists as a minimum for long-term survival of species.
Further action needs to be taken, however, such as putting laws in place to prevent people poaching animals that are thought to provide medicinal benefits in places such as China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Here at Worldie, we believe this trade needs to be put to an end once and for all.