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Rare Northern White Rhino Dies of Old Age–and Then There Were 7…

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

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All things to nothingness descend,

Grow old and die and meet their end…

Nor long shall any name resound

Beyond the grave, unless ‘t be found

In some clerk’s book, it is the pen

Gives immortality to men

…and rhinos

The Norman poet Master Wace wrote those words (well, all but the last line) in the 12th century, and I have long taken his message to heart. It’s a writer’s job to tell the stories that won’t otherwise be told, and in my case that often involves telling stories about the many endangered species that are quickly and silently slipping away from us.

I first wrote about the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) in 1989 for a college economics paper about the illegal ivory trade, an assignment that kick-started my lifelong interest in endangered species. At the time, there were maybe only a few dozen of these animals left, the rest having been slaughtered over the course of the 20th century for their valuable horns that many Asian people still—quite erroneously—believe can cure a variety of diseases as well as improve male virility.

Less than a decade later, by 1997, northern whites’ population had dropped to 25 animals, all in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They had been wiped out in their ancestral habitats in Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Zaire and Uganda. Even with that level of rarity, the slaughter continued. By 2007, the last four wild northern white rhinos had disappeared from their final refuge, undoubtedly the victims of poachers.

That left eight northern white rhinos remaining in the world, all in zoos: two at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and six at Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. Those captive rhinos were all aging quickly, and none had bred since 2000. In fact, the only successful captive breeding of northern whites had taken place at Dvur Kralove.

With the hope that breathing their native African air would inspire them to breed once again, four of the rhinos from Dvur Kralove were relocated to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2009. As I wrote that December, the goal was less to get the four northern whites to bear their own children and more to crossbreed them with their related subspecies, the southern white rhinoceros (C. s. simum), allowing them to pass their genes on even if their own subspecies went extinct.

Although that goal has yet to be realized, the idea might yet work. After months of struggles to get the animals used to their new homes, two of the northern whites finally started mating with each other in February, and a third has mated with a southern white. That doesn’t mean that they’re successfully breeding or that any pregnancies have resulted, but at least it’s a start.

Meanwhile, there is sad news out of the Czech Republic. Nesari, a 39-year-old female who had been deemed too old and weak to return to Africa in 2009, has finally passed away of old age. As zoo spokeswoman Jana Myslive ková told the Czech newspaper, Mladá fronta Dnes, “At the time of the transport, veterinarians predicted she would live for no longer than six months. It was actually a miracle that she lived until this spring.”

Her death leaves the world with just seven northern white rhinoceros and a ticking clock counting down toward the species’s eventual extinction. Even if a calf or two are born in Kenya, it won’t be enough to save these animals. This is undoubtedly a species that will disappear within our lifetimes.

It has been disheartening to watch these rhinos fade away over the past 22 years, the animals dying one by one from poachers’ bullets or old age. It’s been the death of a thousand paper cuts—but instead of paper it has been bullets, greed, lust, indifference and ignorance.

Nesari’s death doesn’t leave me with much hope. But it did leave me with a story to tell. And I’ll keep telling those stories with the faith that they will make a difference, even if it’s too late for the northern white rhinoceros.


Photo: A 2008 shot of a northern white rhinoceros at Dvur Kralove Zoo by Mistav via Wikipedia. Used under Creative Commons license

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  1. 1. oldvic 4:47 am 06/8/2011

    Mankind grows in numbers a lot faster than it grows in wisdom.

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  2. 2. wombat247 7:05 am 06/8/2011

    I’m not sure why this is a crisis. Species have been going extinct since there have been species on Earth. The only reason that people feel it’s vital to prevent extinction is so they can feel like they’re more important than they actually are. The painful truth is that we just don’t matter as much as we’d like to believe. Even though this species’ inevitable extinction is likely directly due to the actions of humans, it’s self-aggrandizing to think that we can do anything to prevent it from happening.

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  3. 3. positiveguy1960 9:37 pm 06/8/2011

    I disagree unilaterally that concern for other species is because humans want to feel more important than them. There’s no logic to that at all. And yes species have always been going extinct since the first single celled creature became alive.

    It’s not a crisis maybe when you look at it in it’s isolation of one sub-species but if you look at the bigger picture of the general trend of human population growth and species extinction over the long term then maybe having massive numbers of species go extinct is an issue.

    Then there is simply the moral question of whether our species has the right to cause the extinguishment of entire species? (Don’t we call that genocide when we do that to humans?)

    Then there is also the issue of possible benefits to the human race that ‘some’ species might provide even though this might be really a collateral benefit not being as important as the ethical and moral considerations. Just one example is the plant that produces the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen what if this plant went extinct before it were ever found?

    I agree that it wasn’t very likely this species could have been saved. I am guessing that with as ignorant and stupid as these poachers are there was little chance of saving the Rhinos. Sometimes triage is necessary when saving things and I’m guessing they really didn’t think this species would be saved anyway given the situation.

    But big picture wise I don’t think we want the planet to be only occupied by humans, dogs, cats, cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes only. It might be a boring place too.

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  4. 4. bucketofsquid 10:41 am 06/21/2011

    So wombat247, You don’t get the basics of cause and effect? Something is caused by humans directly but somehow you suffer the delusion that humans aren’t responsible? So do you think that if humans stopped killing the rhinos that then monkeys would get guns and kill them instead? Do you think God mandated the deaths of these rhinos that were killed by the poachers?

    While I agree that humans as a species are hopelessly self centered, I see no evidence that we are incapable of causing wide spread destruction or choosing not to cause wide spread destruction.

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  5. 5. Sarginson 1:28 pm 07/6/2012

    Bucketofsquid – Though I don’t agree with wombat247, I do feel you may have misunderstood his comment. He didn’t say that he didn’t believe that human’s were the cause of the animals inevitable demise. Quote: “Even though this species’ inevitable extinction IS likely directly due to the actions of humans..”

    He simply stated he thought it “self-aggrandizing to think that we can do anything to prevent it from happening.”

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