The northern white rhinoceros is on the brink of extinction. Ruthlessly hunted and killed for their horns (which, contrary to popular belief, are not used as an aphrodisiac), these beautiful animals no longer exist in the wild. Only five northern white rhinos yet survive, all in captivity or semi-captivity.
Since a December death reduced their number to five, many stories have been written about the plight of their species (or, more probably, subspecies). And they are indeed in a dire place. But this piece is more an attempt to write about them, the rhinos themselves. It deals heavily with their reproduction (or lack thereof), as their unfortunate status as “the last hope for their kind” has rather dominated their entire existence. But they are still more than just eggs and sperm . . . they are five northern white rhinoceroses, possibly the last five northern white rhinoceroses that will ever live.
Sudan (the rhinoceros) was born in Sudan (the country) in 1973, in the wild. Had he stayed in the wild, he certainly would have been killed for his horn, as has every other wild northern white rhino since then. But in 1975, Sudan was taken to the Dvůr Králové Zoo in what was then Czechoslovokia, along with five other northern white rhinos, as part of a plan to protect them from poaching and rebuild their numbers.
Once in Czechoslovakia, Sudan was part of the first (and only) ever successful attempt to breed northern white rhinos in captivity. Sudan didn’t sire the first captive-born northern white (that was the other male, Saut), but on June 8, 1983, his daughter Nabire was born, carried for 485 days by his mate, the Ugandan-born Nassima.
Six years later, Nassima birthed his second daughter, Najin. Sudan and Nassima conceived a third time in ‘91, but Nassima miscarried, dying a year later. Sudan has no other offspring.
By 2009, with no northern white rhinoceroses left in the wild (and few options for rebuilding the species in captivity) Sudan, his daughter Najin, and his granddaughter Fatu were all relocated to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where it was hoped a more natural habitat would encourage them to reproduce. The only other male at Ol Pejeta has subsequently died (of old age), making Sudan the only surviving male, as well as one of only two surviving wild-born northern white rhinos.
42 years old this year, he lives with his daughter and granddaughter at Ol Pejeta. He and his descendents represent 80% of the entire northern white rhinoceros population.
Nabire was born in 1983 at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czechoslovakia, only the second northern white rhinoceros ever born in captivity, and the oldest surviving captive-born northern white rhino. (Her older half-brother Suni died in 2008.)
Unlike her father, sister, and niece (who all now live in Kenya), Nabire never left the Czech zoo. Like her now-deceased half-brother, she has lived her entire life in complete captivity, a somewhat sad distinction shared by only her and her brother (every other northern white rhino in history was either born in the wild, or released back into at least a semi-wild state). When the decision was made in 2009 to move rhinos to a Kenyan wildlife preserve, her cystic ovaries made her an unfit candidate for future breeding. Transporting her would incur cost and risk without any additional benefit to repopulating the species, and so she stayed behind.
She had another northern white rhino (an elderly female named Nesari) to keep her company at the zoo when her family left, but Nesari died in 2011 at age 39. Nabire is now the only one of her kind left in the Czech Republic zoo, although she still has southern white rhinos there to keep her company.
(In the video above, Czech veterinarians are attempting to vacuum out a large ovarian cyst, in order to extract some of Nabire’s eggs for future attempts at repopulating her subspecies through IVF. Given the poor state of the remaining population, this would almost certainly require southern white rhinos acting as surrogates.)
Nabire’s little sister Najin was born in 1989 (at the same zoo, of course), and grew up there with her older sister and older half-brother. She was spared her sister’s medical problems, and grew to be a relatively healthy young rhinoceros.
When she was 10 years old, she gave birth to her first and only calf, a female rhino named Fatu. Fatu’s father was Saut (who also fathered Najin’s half-brother Suni 20 years earlier).
Najin was 18 when she, her father, her daughter, and her half-brother were sent to Kenya. As her father and half-brother were the only two males present, her reproductive options were limited. Her half-brother courted her on occasion (see video above . . . Najin is the rhino on the right), and Najin was even pregnant at one point, but she never successfully carried another calf to term. When her half-brother Suni died in October of last year of “probably natural causes” (but definitely not poachers), it meant the almost-certain end of Najin’s run at rebuilding her subspecies.
Najin, now 25 years old (she turns 26 on July 11), has some knee problems, but otherwise appears to be in good health. She lives on the Ol Pejeta conservancy with her daughter Fatu, and her father Sudan, along with a number of southern white rhinos and other large African mammals.
When Fatu was born to Najin and Saut, there were only 30 northern white rhinos left in the wild, and counting Fatu, only 10 left in captivity. Fatu was the first (and only) 2nd generation captive-born northern white rhino, as her mother (but not her father) was born in the same zoo.
When she was eight, she was sent to the Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya. You can see her (briefly) in the video at the top, with her grandfather and mother.
As the youngest northern white rhino left alive, there were high hopes that she would help her species rebuild its numbers . . . but unfortunately, Fatu appears to be infertile. Only 14 years old, she may have many years ahead of her, but with no good prospects for new northern white rhinoceroses, they may be slightly lonely. (Although she’ll likely still have the southern white rhinoceroses for company.)
Nola is actually the oldest-living northern white rhinoceros, beating Sudan by maybe a year. (Neither Nola nor Sudan’s exact birthdays are known, as they were both caught in the wild, from the same part of Sudan.)
Nola spent the first 14 years of her captivity at the same Czech zoo that housed the other surviving rhinos, as part of the same rescue/repopulation program. But in 1989, very shortly before the Velvet Revolution, Nola was separated from the others. She, Saut, and another Czech female rhino were “loaned” to the San Diego zoo, where they would join a male named Angalifu from Khartoum.
The “loan” turned out to be fairly permanent, as only Saut returned (in 1998).
In San Diego, zookeepers hoped she would warm up to the males in her enclosure. Angalifu showed interest in Nola, but she consistently spurned his repeated advances. Zookeepers finally drugged her food to make her more “receptive,” and though they did finally mate (after she was well-drugged) she and Angalifu never conceived. The other female also never produced offspring, and died in 2007.
Angalifu died last December, making Nola the last northern white rhinoceros in the Western hemisphere. She is well cared-for, but at roughly 43 years old and half a world away, she will likely never see another of her kind again.