Much of the world may not care, but make no mistake: The planet shed a tear when the last known male northern white rhino died this week.
“The world’s last surviving northern white rhino has died after months of poor health, his carers say,” BBC News reported under the heading Northern white rhino: Last male Sudan dies in Kenya.
Sudan, who was 45, lived at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was put down Monday after age-related complications worsened to the point where his carers decided he was in significant pain and unlikely to recover.
Sudan had lived at Safari Park Dvür Králové in the Czech Republic until 2009, when he was repatriated to his ancestral home in the arid thorn-bush scrublands of northern Kenya.
Dvür Králové is the only zoo in the world where northern white rhinos have successfully given birth, but here’s the catch: The last calf was born in 2000.
Sudan’s death leaves just two females, his daughter and granddaughter, of the subspecies.
There are five species of rhinos, of which the white rhino is the largest. There are two subspecies: The southern white rhino, which is native to South Africa and neighbouring countries, is at risk but not yet critically endangered. (Wild populations outside South Africa are hard to ascertain, but it’s believed southern white rhinos may already have vanished from several southern African countries, owing to a recent spike in poaching driven by the insatiable demand for rhino horn in Asian countries.)
“His death is a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature and it saddened everyone who knew him,” Jan Stejskal, an official with Dvür Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic’s Labe (Elbe) river valley region of Bohemia, told the AFP news agency, as reported on BBC News’ main website Tuesday.
“But we should not give up.”
An elegy — a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead — might not seem appropriate for an animal, but as anyone who has spent time around animals knows, they’re sentient beings, capable of emotion and, in many cases, the ability to feel pain and know sadness.
What’s telling about the outpouring of sentiment on social media, from those who saw him on a day-to-day basis at Ol Pejeta and by those who barely knew him, except from wildlife films and photo essays in nature periodicals, is how raw and open the emotional wounds are — at least, among those care about about species extinction and somehow finding the right balance between Nature and a fast-growing human population.
It may not be easy to remember now, but northern white rhinos were actually quite widespread, as recently as the 1970s and ‘80s. They ranged from Uganda and Kenya in East Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR) in central Africa, to Chad in northern Africa, and to Sudan itself, after which Sudan was named (obviously). A poaching epidemic in the mid- to late 1980s for both rhino horn and elephant tusks proved catastrophic for one species and near-catastrophic for the other, all to service the demand for use in traditional Chinese medicines and the quaint notion that ground rhino horn is both an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer. (Spoiler alert: It’s neither.)
Rhino horn was also used for dagger handles in Yemen; it’s hard to assess, given the present turmoil in Yemen, exactly how much demand remains for dagger handles.
The World Wildlife Fund declared the northern white rhino extinct in the wild in 2008.
Even the mere idea that an iconic species like a rhino that could still be found in the Congo as recently as the early 2000s should be virtually extinct by 2018 should be cause for alarm, but it clearly isn’t — not when a recently U.S. administration can look at a melting polar ice cap and put it down to a Chinese hoax. The only Chinese hoax is the insistence that rhino horn is a cure for cancer.
(To be fair, China has become politically active in the past year on the issue of climate change and in species extinction, in no small part because many Chinese cities are on the verge of being unliveable, due to air pollution and wild swings in the weather. The current U.S. administration, on the other hand, remains bereft of ideas and unwilling to accept that there’s even a problem.)
Sudan was 45 — or 90 in human terms — when he was put down by veterinarians. He was being treated for degenerative deterioration to his muscles and bones, and was unable to stand. He also suffered from extended bruising and skin wounds. Putting him down was the humane thing to do.
Sudan’s genetic material has been collected and stored, in the hope that science might one day find a way to clone extinct animals from DNA. Rhino IVF (in vitro fertilization) is relatively untested and is considered both an invasive and radical procedure. And expensive. Geneticists, conservationists, veterinarians and wildlife biologists put the price as high as USD $10 million.
Then again, some might argue — and they have a case — that no price is too high where species extinction is concerned, especially a species as familiar and symbolic as a rhino.