Scramble to save rhino subspecies down to its last male

The Sunday Times

THERE are few animals on earth who have a slimmer chance of finding love than 40-year-old Sudan — the only male northern white rhinoceros in the world.

There are only four females for the elderly bull to choose from and only two of these — his daughter and granddaughter — live within the same semi-wild enclosure in Kenya. The other two live thousands of miles away in zoos in the Czech Republic and America.

But even if there were more females to choose from, Sudan is considered incapable of mating naturally: he is too weak to mount and his sperm is in poor condition.

With the sudden death in recent weeks of his last two male relatives — one from what appears to be a heart attack — the likelihood of saving the northern white rhino (which is actually grey) from oblivion is low.

In fact,conservationists say the subspecies is essentially extinct already.

“Once you get down to four or five animals, you can’t even call it a species any more,” said Rob Brett, Africa programme director at Fauna & Flora International.

“For that, you need a minimum of 20 unrelated animals. When you have only four or five it is unrealistic to say you can save the species.”

Despite these fading hopes, experts are scrambling for a way to rescue the subspecies — or at the very least its genes. There are a number of options. The most bizarre — and least likely — involves freezing the rhinos’ DNA until humans can artificially bring extinct species back to life.

The process of “de-extinction” has had some success: in 2003, Spanish and French scientists brought a Pyrenean ibex back from extinction only to watch it die minutes after its birth. Another team is trying to revive the woolly mammoth.

“This could be part of the future,” said Richard Vigne, who runs the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy in Kenya, where Sudan and the two females live.

Conservationists also believe artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation using northern white rhino sperm stored in Berlin may revive the animal. Yet success is not guaranteed.

Even if artificial techniques were to succeed, severe inbreeding would make it hard for the population to survive, according to African rhino conservation specialists.

They believe the best solution is to crossbreed the rhinos with their southern cousins, which would at least preserve some of the rhino’s genes. “We are not trying to create a museum specimen but maintain a distinctive type of rhino ,” said Brett.

The crossbreeding experiment is under way in Kenya, where the last three semi-wild rhinos are kept under 24-hour armed guard to protect them from poachers.

The white rhino’s decline is tied to the instability of the African countries where it once roamed. Wars in Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo made conservation efforts impossible and poaching easy.

Sudanese militiamen on horses wiped out the last of the animals from the wild in 2005. Or did they?

In recent years, there have been unconfirmed sightings of the animal in South Sudan. But the civil war there has made it impossible to confirm.

“They may exist in no-man’s land between warring factions,” said Brett. “There are no people there and sometimes wildlife has persisted as a strange consequence of war.”

The chances though, he admits, are remote.

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