After Coming So Close to Recovering, Northern White Rhino is Nearly Extinct

Conservationists are dealing with some very sad news this Monday.  The San Diego Zoo, one of America’s largest zoological parks, has announced the death of Angalifu, a male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni).  

I. One of the Last of His Kind

The male, age 40 (born in 1974), was a favorite with visitors of the zoo’s Safari Park.  The death leaves just one known surviving male of the subspecies.  And there’s only four females left, as well.

Angalifu, whose name means “one who listens intensely”, was loaned from the Khartoum Zoo in Sudan, one of the last countries that had small populations of the beast left in the wild in the 1970s.

Angalifu was only the second to last surviving male northern white rhino.  His species has been poached relentlessly, with his horn today worth as much as $1.5M USD on the black market.
[Image Source: Flickr/charissa1066]
The plan was to have him breed with one of the zoo’s two female members of the subspecies, Nola and Nadine.  In reality it appears that both were too old.  Nadine was in her 30s at the time and passed away in her mid-40s (exact age unknown) in 2007.  Nola is still alive, but is believed to be infertile.

And Angalifu himself may have been too old to sire offspring.  Attempts to artificially inseminate northern white rhino females at a Kenyan sanctuary failed.

The zoo posted a brief statement to micro-blogging platform Twitter Inc. (TWTR) bemoaning the loss.

The Safari Park’s curator and director, Randy Rieches, released a brief statement mourning:
Angalifu’s death is a tremendous loss to all of us.  Not only because he was well beloved here at the park but also because his death brings this wonderful species one step closer to extinction.
The zoo is considering what to do with its remaining female, Nola.  It may elect to allow her to live out her life at the Safari Park, where she seems relatively comfortable in her twilight years.

II. How the Northern White Rhinoceros Was Almost Saved

Africa is home to two kinds of rhinoceroses — Black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) and white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum).  The latter is the bigger species with the largest known specimen weighing over 4,500 kg (10,000 lb) — more than twice the weight of the largest known black rhino.  

The northern white rhino once lived in the wild in the regions in orange.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
White rhinos also have the longest horn of any rhinoceros species,  with their larger horn ranging from 90 cm (35 in) to 150 cm (59 in) in length — or roughly 6 feet (2 m) at its longest.  There are two types of genetically distinct white rhino subspecies.  The southern one is relatively well conserved (with over 15,000 surviving members), while the northern one is now almost extinct (with only 5 members).

Fatu was born in 2000.  At the time of her birth the species looked poised for revival.  But since her birth, no other northern white rhinos have been born in captivity. [Image Source: The New York Times]
The species flourished in the African savannah, with no real natural predators of adults of the species.  But occasional use in tribal medicine and the demand for bushmeat [source], led to the northern subspecies becoming one of Africa’s first high profile endangered species.

By the 1960s there were only around 2,000 of the lumbering herbivorous mammal left alive.  By the 1970s that number had further dropped to around 500 and by the 1980s the species was believed to be extinct in the wild with just 15 northern white rhinos known to remain in captivity or conservancy.

Transferred to Kenya, Fatu may be her species’ last survivor. [Image Source: Ol Pejeta Conservancy]
Intense captive breeding efforts by the San Diego Zoo and by the European Union had over the course of the 1980s and 1990s produced what appeared to be a promising success story.  By 2003 the numbers had nearly doubled to 32.  The recovery was fragile, but hope burned bright.

After all, the southern white rhino — believed to be extinct in the late 1800s — was saved by the discovery and conservation of a small 20 animal population in the 1890s.  In the next century that population grew to over 20,000 animals.  The species was saved.  Conservationists hoped the same would happen for the northern subspecies. 

But sometimes, in the words the great African author Chinua Achebe, things fall apart.  And they did.

III. Driven by Bizarre Meta Fascination, East Asia Demands Rhino Horns

A continent away in China and Vietnam demand for rhinoceros horn was growing.

Horns of local rhinoceros species (Indian rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis)) had long been used in east Asian tribal medicine, but consumption was relatively low.  But in the 1960s through the 1980s Western media and pop culture began to depict wide-spread accounts that tribal shamans were using the horn as an aphrodesiac.

According to Tom Milliken, east and southern Africa director of the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, it appears that those depictions were most false — or perhaps entirely made up.  There’s little evidence, he says, of rhino horns being used for this purpose in the region.

But the media depictions had an unexpected meta sort of affect.

In Vietnam and China interest in rhino horns was piqued and demand soared.  Soon tribal shamanists were promoting the horn as a cure to excessive consumption of alcohol and rich food.  They were also sometimes marketing it as a cure to cancer.  Price of rhinoceros horn soared to more than $20,000 USD per kilogram, up wildly from the price of $250-300 USD/kilogram in the 1990s.

Rhino horn prices have soared at a feverish rate as demand for the horns among wealthy East Asians has skyrocketed. [Image Source: Quartz w/ data from FactSet]
The rise in prices made Rhino horns a more valuable commodity than gold.  “The myth has come full circle”, Mr. Milliken mused in a 2012 interview with The Guardian, in which he described the rise in interest due to Western depictions as “rather [incredible].”

The growing value caught the attention of poachers in Africa, who had largely moved on to poaching elephants.  An average northern white rhinoceros rhino horn weighs around 2 to 5 kg (4.4-11 lb).  In the 1990s that meant the creature might be worth a couple thousand dollars dead.  At that price poaching declined as it wasn’t necessarily worth the risk to try to kill the relatively tightly protected species.

After almost ceasing in the 1990s, rhino poaching exploded a decade ago.  Now 3 rhinos are killed, roughly, every two days. [Image Source: The Atlantic]
But after increasing by two orders of magnitude since the 1990s, in the last two years prices have increased ten-fold yet again.  Today horn powder is trading for over $300,000 USD/kg [source].  That means that one northern white rhinoceros could be worth $1.5M USD for its horn alone.  At that price many poachers are willing to die trying to get their prized illegal catch.

A northern white rhino’s larger horn can fetch over a million dollars at current prices.  Many members of the recovering population were gunned down by machine gun for their horns, last decade.
[Image Source: Reuters]
From 2003 to 2007, there were a number of brutal murders of northern white rhinos by well-equipped poachers targeting conservacies in Africa.  The poaching drove the species from its path of recovery.  In 2003 the population had more than doubled over the last decade, with 32 rhinos.  By 2007 there were only 7 northern white rhinos left alive.  The species was nearly extinct.

IV. Almost Gone

In the past three months two of the seven remaining members of the subspecies died.  One — Suni, a 34 year old male who was born in captivity in 1980 — perished at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy in October.  The conservancy said the death did not appear to be due to poaching [translated], but that the cause of death remains under investigation.

With death of Suni and Angalifu, only five surviving northern white rhinos (4 female, 1 male) are left:

  • San Diego Zoo — Calif., USA
    • Nola — female; age 40 ; infertile; born in 1974
  • Ol Pejeta Conservancy — Kenya
    • Sudan — male; age 40; possibly fertile; born in 1974
    • Najin — female; age 25; likely fertile; born in 1989 in captivity; half-sister of Suni
    • Fatu — female; age 14; fertile; born in 2000 in captivity; daugher of Suni
  • Dvur Králové Zoo — Czech Republic
    • Nabire — female; age 32; has one fertile ovary; born in 1983 in captivity; daughter of Sudan

Hope is dwindling for the survival of the species, although it hasn’t fade altogether.  There’s been efforts to artificially inseminate Suni and Fatu, both of whom are likely fertile.  And the Czech republic zoo is working to extract viable eggs from Nabire’s fertile ovary to try to implant with sperm.  If fertilization is successful, the offspring could be implanted in Suni or Fatu, or even in a surrogate southern white rhino mother.

Northern white rhino Nabire (left), relaxes with aging male Natal (right) back in 2011.  Natal died later that year. [Image Source: AP]
The biggest problem, perhaps, is that much of the saved sperm may be from rhinos who are too old to be viable.  Until the middle of the last decade it was looking like traditional breeding could save the species, so sperm saving efforts were relatively scarce.

Now, with poaching having destroyed the hopes of traditional breeding, artificial insemination is the only remaining hope of saving the species — but most of the sperm collected comes from males like Sudan and Angalifu, who were already somewhat old (the natural lifespan of the species is 40 to 50 years).  Also many of the males whom sperm was collected from are related to the remaining fertile females (e.g. Nabire is the daughter of Sudan).

It’s possible there’s no viable sperm left.  That would mean the species could go extinct within the next 30 years (with Fatu being likely to pass within three decades).  Of course more exotic techniques like cloning could save the day, but the situation remains dire for now.

If something isn’t done the remaining surviving subspecies — the sourthern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) could suffer a similar fate.  While numbers of that subspecies were counted at 17,460 in 2007, poaching rates in South Africa — home to roughly 93 percent of the members of the subspecies — had skyrocketed, reaching around 500 animals killed per year by 2011.  The species numbers today are expected to be around 13,000-15,000, conservatively.

The southern white rhino may be next. [Image Source: The Atlantic]
Perhaps even if the northern white rhino dies, its southern cousin can be saved if the poaching trade can be stopped.  But doing that won’t be easy and will almost surely cost the lives of both poachers and conservation officials.  Africa’s rhino population is caught in a war, fueled by wealthy patron in East Asia.  Greedy and desparate poachers are laying their lives on the line to gun down the remaining rhinos of Africa and loot their horns.

The greed and superstition of man have already caused the western black rhinoceros to perish from the Earth.  And they may soon cause the northern white rhino to vanish from the earth.  And if something isn’t done, the rest of the rhinoceros species of Africa and Asia — today all seriously endangered — may vanish as well within the next century.