Death did not sneak up on Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, who was put to sleep on Monday after a months-long battle with a number of health complications. He was 45, and there will never be another animal quite like him.
Sudan lived out much of his later life at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya with the only two other surviving northern white rhinos, his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. Decades of poaching and habitat destruction have now led to the extinction of a subspecies that recently numbered in the thousands across Africa. If more effective conservation measures aren’t taken soon, other rhino subspecies could meet the same unfortunate fate.
Hope for preserving the northern white rhino, one of five remaining subspecies of rhinoceros, now lies in in vitro fertilization (IVF). According to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Sudan’s genetic material was collected just before he was euthanized, providing “a hope for future attempts at reproduction of northern white rhinos through advanced cellular technologies.”
Sudan had been suffering from degenerative muscle and bone complications and extensive skin wounds, and in the 24 hours before his death he was no longer able to stand up.
Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects at Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, where Sudan was moved from in 2009 in an effort to set up a breeding program, said Sudan’s death is “a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature and it saddened everyone who knew him.”
“But we should not give up,” he said in a statement. “We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilized for conservation of critically endangered species. It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring.”
This kind of optimistic thinking is necessary to move on, but until these new technologies are proven, there remains no “cure” for extinction—prevention is the only proven method.
“Sadly, Northern white rhinos are now functionally extinct,” Kate Ford, with the nonprofit Save the Rhino, recently told Earther. “Even if much-hyped innovations like rhino IVF are perfected in the future, it will likely come too late to save this subspecies.”
“People need to back projects protecting critically endangered species so lessons learned can be put into practice with other rhino species, making sure they don’t dip below 20 individuals, that habitat is secured, governments, zoos and international actors cooperate, and breeding is intensively managed,” she said.
The only reason Sudan managed to survive so long is because he was being exhibited in a zoo while the rest of his subspecies was annihilated by poaching.
A November photo capturing Sudan’s current mood and permanent plight went viral. Perhaps he could feel his time, and that of his subspecies, winding down.