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On the horns of a dilemma: Last-ditch effort aims to save nearly extinct northern white rhino–But is it too late?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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white rhinoFour of the world’s last eight surviving northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) are now living in Africa for the first time in decades as part of a last-ditch effort to save the subspecies from extinction.

Only eight northern white rhinos exist in the world, all in captivity until recently. Two live in the U.S. at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Six more resided at Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic; four of those animals were crated up on Sunday and flown to Kenya, where it is hoped that living in their natural environment will inspire them to breed.

Northern white rhinos are thought to be extinct in the wild, and have not been seen out of captivity since 2007, when only one sighting was reported. Like all rhino species, their populations were destroyed by rampant poaching for their horns, which are valued in traditional Asian medicine and as ornamental dagger sheaths in the Middle East. The northern white also lived in an area plagued by attacks by Sudan’s Janjaweed militia, which made protecting that last wild population almost impossible.

So, why return these rhinos to Africa—and why now? The rhinos sent back to Kenya include a 20-year-old female known as Najin, the last northern white rhino to ever give birth, although that was way back in 2000. According to a report in Sowetan, officials from Dvur Kralove zoo hope “the hormone levels of the female rhinos will get back to normal in Africa, improving chances for breeding.”

“We plan to give the remaining individuals with breeding potential their last chance of normal and regular reproduction in a secure location in the wild,” zoo director Dana Holeckova told BBC News.

Not everyone thinks this move is a good idea. “It makes no sense to move them at this point in time. It’s way too little, too late,” Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Wild Animal Park, told the Associated Press.

At this point, there’s little to no hope of maintaining the northern white rhino as its own species. Even if the two females moved to Kenya do, eventually, give birth, it is likely that they will breed with their cousin subspecies, the southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum). The goal, now, is to pass on the northern rhino’s genes, which could provide the southern cousins with much-needed resistance to diseases carried by the tsetse fly. In fact, crossbreeding the two subspecies is “the only remaining option” to retain their genetic material, according to the International Rhino Foundation.

Whether the rhinos will respond to their “natural” environment remains to be seen. Of the four repatriated rhinos, both of the females and one of the males were born in captivity.

The money to transport the four was donated by Alastair Lucas, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs in Australia. The cost has not been disclosed, although security to protect the rhinos from poachers will cost around $90,000 a year.

Image: A northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) in captivity at Dvur Kralove Zoo. Via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. denniswalker 3:15 am 12/22/2009

    Personally I wish I could be around when mankind is about to go extinct. The world was a garden before we screwed it up. Intelligent life? Give me a break or rather the world. If there were a god as mankind proposes thet figure would remove us from its creation and start over…and leave us out of the equation.

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  2. 2. pokahauntess 7:32 pm 12/22/2009

    the earth has started over before….you don’t see a lot of Dinosaurs walking around these days. I don’t want to be there
    though. Imagine the horror! Aside from mass starvation, and illness we’d get all the lovely social ills that come with mass panic.We’d better get it together though.

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  3. 3. pokahauntess 7:35 pm 12/22/2009

    makes me sad that human consumption has lead to the extinction of so many animals. I’m glad that articles like
    this continue to fight the good fight and provide information.
    The more people are educated about their effects on environments that seem far away, the more likely they are to
    think about their actions.

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  4. 4. brsecu 9:56 am 12/23/2009

    If you are so upset about people you can start by offing yourself. That would be a good start.

    Also I think that there are some animals that are very happy that humans are around. Cats and dogs to name a few.

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  5. 5. Crocman 6:12 am 12/28/2009

    Congrats to Dvur Kralove Zoo and its team! They have been much more successful in captive husbandry of the species than San Diego still is.
    And yes: It might be too late but its worth a try. Even San Diego should appreciate the Czech efforts in Northern White Rhino consservation.

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  6. 6. Peter Simmons 9:04 am 11/28/2012

    4. brsecu – so being upset by what others do is, according to you, a reason why someone should kill themselves. Dogs were selectively bred by humans from wolves, before they slaughtered most of the wolves as a threat to their livestock and after wolves had taught men how to hunt intelligently. Cats were wild, feral cats, before being domesticated and turned into overfed, pampered killers who eat from tins and kill for pleasure – tens of millions of birds and small mammals are killed by domestic cats every year in Britain alone, for America it’s probably in the millions. Your point was what?

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