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
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 kov told the Czech newspaper, Mlad 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