Northern White Rhinos near extinction after death of Nola

Northern White Rhinos near extinction after death of Nola
Northern White Rhinos near extinction after death of Nola

Animals dying of old age rarely attract attention, but the death of one of the last living northern white rhinos has made international headlines.

Nola was one of only four northern white rhinos left on earth.  Her death is a real-time window on extinction. Nolas’s death over the weekend at the San Diego Zoo in California leaves the world with three individuals, all in Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

According to a dispatch from the Kenya Wildlife Serice (KWS), Nola was the only female in the Western World, including North America, South America, and Europe. She was wild caught in the Shambe area, which is located “in the southern savanna woodlands of Sudan and was rescued from the violent poaching that is prevalent in that region when she was only a few years old.” Her age upon capture has been estimated more closely at being 18 months old.

Nola was 41 years when a lingering infection caught up with her.

“Nola’s condition worsened and we made the difficult decision to euthanize her,” said the San Diego Zoo in a statement. “We’re absolutely devastated by this loss.” And now there are three – all too old or ill to reproduce, all under armed guard at a Kenyan conservancy.

The Northern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) is currently the world’s rarest rhinoceros.  The northern white rhino is a sub-species of white rhino, which used to range over parts of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Years of widespread poaching and civil war in their home range have devastated northern white rhino populations, and they are now considered to be extinct in the wild.

The translocation of the last individuals from Zoo Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czech Republic to natural conditions in order to evoke normal territorial and social behaviour essential for regular breeding was thought to be the only conservation option available.

All previous breeding attempts in the Zoo had been futile, and the hope was that the climate and rich grasslands of Ol Pejeta, a native habitat for the animals, would provide them with more favourable breeding conditions.

Kenya was chosen to host four individuals due to its proximity to the former ranges i.e. DRC and Sudan and the rhinos repatriated in 2009 through a project dubbed “Back to Africa” spearheaded by The Back to Africa Organisation based in South Africa. One of the males named ‘Suni’ died in October 2014.

The three northern white rhinos continue to be monitored closely and are kept in two groups with four southern white rhinos which were introduced to stimulate reproduction. To keep the northern white rhinos safe and in good health, Ol Pejeta dedicated 24hr armed security, a 700-acre enclosure, and a nutritious diet supplemented with fresh vegetables.

Various matings have been noted over the period they have been at Ol Pejeta but with no success in conception.

In October 2014, the younger male, Suni died with no prior history of illness. This has now left an old male (over 40 years of age) that has no ability to reproduce naturally.

In early 2015, checks by vets from the Czech Republic and Kenya Wildlife Service dealt us another blow – neither of the females is capable of natural reproduction, and Sudan’s sperm count was disappointingly low (but not surprising given his age).

In July 2015, Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic lost Nabire, leaving just four northern white rhino left on the planet.

An examination of the remaining three northern white rhinoceroses at Ol Pejeta Conservancy was conducted from 29th to 30th November, 2014 following the sudden death of Suni (Male) in the night of October, 16th/17th, 2014, nearly 5 years after introduction in December 2009.   

A contingency plan has since been put in place as it was noted that technology can still save the species. The northern white rhinos steering committee chaired by KWS is assessing the best way forward to save this great sub-species from extinction.

A team of experts both local and foreign collected semen from the remaining male northern white rhinos on 18th and 19th October 2015.

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Story By Kimeli Arap Kemei
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