In this photo taken on May 3 last year, a ranger takes care of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya. Sudan was put down because of “age-related complications”, researchers announced on Tuesday, saying he “stole the heart of many with his dignity and strength”. Picture: APIn great pain and fading fast, an old rhino named Sudan was put down a few days ago at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
It signalled more than the end of a gentle, much-loved creature. It was the final signature on the death warrant of an entire species.
Sudan was the last surviving male northern white rhino. Only two female northern white rhinos remain at the conservancy – the last of their species on Earth.
They have no hope of breeding with their kind.
Sudan was rescued from war-torn South Sudan in 1972 when there were thought to be 1000 left. By 2003, there were only about 20 left in the wild, all in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park.
The Congolese government blocked plans to take any out of the country and within a few years all had been killed.
Sudan spent the last years of his life under 24-hour protection from armed guards. His horn had been chopped off to deter poachers, though it had begun to grow back.
His guards regularly foiled poaching attacks. But the effort to save him came too late for a turnaround.
There are about 30000 rhinos from five species left in the world, most of which are in South Africa where around 1000 are poached a year.
Sudan’s death should be an urgent wake-up call.
Extinction is forever.
For esteemed biologist Ed Wilson, the death of a species has ripple effects for biodiversity and is a tragedy.
It constitutes, he says, the loss of an entire genetic encyclopaedia that took millions of years in the making.
It erases vital links in the food web as well as opportunities in medicine, biotechnology and agriculture.
Not least, it’s “the permanent loss of a major part of the greatest national and global natural heritage”.
Even just one of the consequences – and all will occur together – is a tragedy.’
Because Sudan was past reproductive age and the two females were unable to produce offspring naturally, scientists were attempting to breed a new rhino in a lab.
Sex cells were harvested from the living northern white rhinos and scientists were hoping to use in vitro fertilisation to impregnate remaining females. The technology to pull this off, however, is still being perfected.
“There’s no guarantee that (IVF) will work,” says Philip Muruthi, vice-president of species protection at the African Wildlife Foundation.
And, he adds, it is extremely expensive and could cost more than $9 million (R106m). “This is a bitter lesson of species conservation,” he adds. “While protection is costly, the costs of recovery are even higher.”
Like the dodo, the Pyrenean ibex, the quagga and the passenger pigeon, the northern white rhino is gone forever.
But it’s not too late to stem and then halt the extinction of species and the ecosystems they compose.
We are certainly too late to save some of them, but global action now can keep the final loss to a minimum.
Sudan was iconic and large, but the real crisis may be the little things we have no idea we’re exterminating.
Although vertebrates, corals and plants are reasonably well known and form the basis of current conservation practice, most insects and other invertebrates remain unknown to science, as well as almost all bacteria and other micro-organisms.
These are “little things that run the world” and are crucial to the survival of the larger creatures, including ourselves.
For all our exploration, we still require a major initiative to explore the planet on which we live, in order to preserve its life.
According to Wilson, “we need to know far more about the life cycles and ecological relationships of both the known and unknown species.
“The science to achieve this should be fed directly into innovations in conservation as well as to advance technology in many fields.”
Professor Ted Bunton, of the University of Essex, in the UK, was more critical in his evaluation of the underlying implications of Sudan’s demise. “Through the current economic system and globalisation we are taking up more of the Earth’s resources and living space than it can accommodate.
“This is not just a threat to other species, this is a threat directly to our survival as humans, too.”
Colin Butfield of WWF said the growing recognition that we are living through an extinction crisis did offer some hope.
“We are aware of it, we know what causes it and to some extent we know what the solutions are.
“Now it is a matter of acting on that knowledge before it is too late.”
From Kenya, Paula Kahumbu, the director of Wildlife Direct, said the news of Sudan’s death had hit people hard.
“The outpouring of grief from Kenyans, especially the younger generation, who woke up to hear that Sudan was dead this morning, is a powerful reminder that we must never allow this to happen again.
“We did not do enough to save this majestic species. Now we must stand up and demand action – take action – to prevent the same thing happening to cheetah, elephants, black rhinos, giraffes – we must take ownership of this as Africans and educate people.”
Too late for Sudan’s progeny, however.
Now we’d better keep our eye on southern white rhinos and their black cousins.
There are less of these than humans in a medium-sized village. In global terms, that’s dangerously few.