Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhinoceros, died in Kenya on Monday, leaving his species one step closer to extinction, even as a group of scientists undertake an unprecedented effort to try to keep this animal from vanishing entirely.
Sudan was 45 years old, and his health had deteriorated in recent weeks after a severe leg infection. In a statement, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy said that his condition worsened and that he was no longer able to stand up, so his veterinary team decided to euthanize him.
Sudan was captured in Sudan in 1975, when he was just 2 years old, and was taken to Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. But as that zoo fell into financial troubles and rhinos failed to breed, Sudan was relocated in 2009 to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in Laikipia County, Kenya, along with two northern white rhino females named Najin and Fatu.
The thinking was that in a place closely resembling their homeland, they would thrive. Northern white rhinos used to be found in an area spanning Uganda, Chad, southwestern Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some 2,000 existed in 1960, according to the World Wildlife Fund, but war and the poaching that funded the fighting drove them to extinction in the wild.
Joseph Thaida, who took care of Sudan at the conservancy since 2012, remembers him as an affectionate and gentle rhino who had his picture taken with tourists and served as the centerpiece of publicity stunts. The most famous was when Sudan got his own Tinder profile last year to bring attention to the plight of his subspecies and to direct donations to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy for research on assisted reproductive technologies for rhinos.
"Whenever he hears people talking, he loves to come close, because he knows he's gonna be scratched," Thaida told NPR last year.
Thaida remembered when Sudan arrived at the conservancy, watching him as he studied the southern white rhinos already there. Sudan learned how to sharpen his horn using a tree. He began to graze and wallow in mud like his genetic cousins.
After years in captivity, Sudan finally learned to become a rhino at this conservancy, Thaida believed. But he and the two females never reproduced.
Dr. Steve Ngulu, the veterinarian who was in charge of Sudan, said the animal's death is sad and shocking — and a testament to human failure.
"But then, as far as their propagation is concerned, we are happy that at least we collected some sperm from him and the other males," Ngulu said.
One of the huge hurdles facing scientists is that the two remaining female northern white rhinos cannot gestate the next generation — one is sterile and the other is not physically capable of carrying a calf to full term.
"So, natural reproduction cannot take place, artificial insemination is not possible, so the only other option that we have to have a pure northern white rhino baby is to retrieve or to do something we call ovum pick-up, collect eggs from the females," Ngulu said.
Those fertilized eggs would then be implanted in a southern white rhino, who would carry the calf to term. Taking eggs from a rhino, though, has never been done. If and when scientists take that risk, there is a chance that the females could perish — bringing the species to extinction.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The world's last male northern white rhino died today in Kenya. His name was Sudan. He leaves behind scientists undertaking a furious unprecedented effort to save his species from extinction. NPR's Eyder Peralta visited Sudan a few months back.
JOSEPH THAIDA: So we can go on the other side.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: As we walk through one of the open fields at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Sudan comes into view.
THAIDA: Whenever he hear people talking, he love to come close...
PERALTA: I see.
THAIDA: ...Because he knows he's going to be scratched.
PERALTA: He's too old for that now. But that's how Joseph Thaida, who has taken care of him since 2012, remembers Sudan - as a people rhino. But today the last male northern white rhino just leans his head against a tree and looks out at the brush land before him. Before, Sudan used to take pictures with tourists. And he was the centerfold for publicity stunts like getting his own Tinder profile. But in his mid-40s, there are no longer expectations.
THAIDA: So for him, he's a free man. Whenever he like to sit inside in the shade, he can sit. Whenever he like to come outside to graze the grass, he can do whatever he want to.
PERALTA: Sudan was captured back in 1975 when he was just 2 years old. He was taken to a zoo in the Czech Republic. And then as that zoo fell into financial troubles, he along with two northern white rhino females were relocated to this conservancy in Kenya in 2009. Thaida remembers watching Sudan observe the southern white rhinos in the conservancy. He learned how to sharpen his horn using a tree. He began to graze like his wild genetic cousins.
THAIDA: When they see the southern white rhino going where there is some water to wallow, they did not know - also know how to wallow.
PERALTA: So in a lot of ways, when Sudan came here, he learned to be a rhino.
PERALTA: Thaida looks at Sudan with awe. He remembers the first time he touched Sudan and thinking how he could feel the power and the majesty of the beast. And he imagined Sudan all that time in the Czech Republic trotting through the snow.
THAIDA: If Sudan can talk, he can talk a lot because for me, I never travel outside in the country. But for Sudan, he has traveled. And maybe he can tell me a lot from outside there, how it looks.
PERALTA: Northern white rhinos used to be found in Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Congo, but war and the poaching that funded the fighting drove them to extinction. Dr. Steve Ngulu, the vet who was in charge of Sudan, says his passing is sad and shocking and a testament to human failure.
STEPHEN NGULU: But then as far as their propagation is concerned, we are happy that at least we collected some sperm from him and from the other males.
PERALTA: There are still two female northern white rhinos left. Both are here at Ol Pejeta, but one is sterile and the other is not physically capable of carrying a calf full-term.
NGULU: Natural reproduction cannot take place. Artificial insemination is not possible. So the only other option that we have to have a pure northern white rhino baby is to retrieve or to do something we call ovum pickup - collect eggs from the females.
PERALTA: The hope and the theory is that those eggs can one day be retrieved, fertilized using Sudan's sperm, and then have a southern white rhino carry the calf to term. But that has never been done. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Laikipia County, Kenya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.