MOUNT KENYA, Kenya — The world’s last male northern white rhinoceros has wandered alone, for almost a decade, in his own enclosure in a game reserve sprawling 27 square miles along the northwestern foothills of Mount Kenya.
The private pen in Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a perk earned with age by the rhino, named Sudan. At 44 years old, he has lived longer than most of his species.
Rhinos have been around for over 30 million years, outlasting multiple ice ages and ancient giant predators. Then humans came along and, in a few centuries of hunting and habitat loss, whittled them down to just a few thousand individuals. Of the northern white species, only three are known to be alive today. Their survival has rested on Sudan’s massive shoulders since October 2014, when the only other fertile male, a fellow captive named Suni, died.
By April this year, all attempts at getting Sudan to mate with one of the only two remaining females, also in Ol Pejeta, had failed. The conservancy has turned to fellow singles for help, using a profile of Sudan on the dating app Tinder with information on how to donate toward the $9 million needed to research a possible solution — but time is running out to develop methods to ensure these giants remain on the face of the Earth.
On a recent chilly morning in October, a park ranger named James Mwenda stepped gently into the enclosure. Mwenda has worked as Sudan’s personal ranger — a job that’s part nurse, part caretaker, and part friend — for four years and knows how to deal with the majestic creature. At first, it took him three weeks to get the courage to, as he put it, “lay hands on Sudan.” On this October morning, he spoke to Sudan in a soft voice — even a geriatric rhino can charge with lightning speed.
“Good boy, Sudan. Good boy,” he cooed. The animal lumbered toward him.
“Approaching a rhino can make you freeze,” Mwenda said, as he put down a bale of hay and a pile of carrots. Standing next to his charge, Mwenda was dwarfed by Sudan’s head alone, and within dangerously easy striking distance of his horn, a weapon capable of impaling a small car.
Like much of Sudan’s life, there’s a sad irony to the scene.
For all their titanic bulk, packed into a six-foot tall, three-ton frame, it’s clear who poses a greater danger to whom. Human activity — poaching for horns and destruction of rhino habitats — has endangered all five remaining rhino species around the world, and killed off every known northern white save for the three alive today: Sudan, his aging daughter Najin, and her daughter, Fatu.
Such is the appetite for rhino horns, sold mainly in Southeast Asia, that elite armed guards patrol Sudan’s enclosure 24 hours a day. Dogs guard the perimeter and drones fly overhead. Even in the sanctuary of a game park, rhinoceroses aren’t safe from poachers.
Now Sudan needed to take his arthritis medication, so Mwenda took two small bananas and placed them carefully in Sudan’s cavernous mouth.
“The trouble is,” he said, still speaking in the same melodious voice, “Sudan is old.”
Sudan is old — or a variation of it — is a phrase Mwenda uses a lot.
“Sudan is very old,” he’d said earlier, as he prepared the first of Sudan’s twice-daily painkiller dose. To disguise the bitterness of swallowing 24 tablets at once, he pressed them into the sweet flesh of two bananas, so they looked like a row of gummy teeth. That reminded Mwenda that two of Sudan’s own teeth had recently fallen out.
“Sudan is too old for this,” he muttered a few minutes later, as lightning-quick monkeys bound around trying to grab carrots from the pile at the rhino's feet.
It’s been a long road for the now-enfeebled rhino. In February 1975, he was still a baby when trappers from England’s Chipperfield Circus snatched him from Shambe, another game park in what’s now South Sudan, in East Africa. His final destination was the country then known as Czechoslovakia, where an eccentric zoo director was trying to grow his collection of captive rhinos.
Sudan’s captivity was his fortune. In the 1960s, northern white rhinos and their larger, hairier southern white cousins numbered in the thousands across Central Africa. Both were doomed after their natural habitat became the epicenter of various conflicts in the 1960s. A decade after Sudan’s capture, between poaching and civil wars, just one herd of 15 northern white rhinos remained in the wild. By 2005, most conservationists agreed northern white rhinos were extinct in the wild.
Concerned conservationists turned to Sudan, part of a tiny clique still alive in captivity in the Czech Republic. Through mating with another northern white rhino at the zoo, Sudan now had a single daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu. But the country’s frigid climate hadn’t been ideal for the beasts, and the girls hadn’t been able to produce offspring. The zoo agreed to ship the three rhinos to the Ol Pejeta game reserve, which was running a thriving program for southern white rhinos; the hope was that being in their natural habitat would help them breed. Once back home, months of unsuccessful attempts revealed the problem: The females’ ovaries had sealed up through lack of use. They would never be able to breed naturally.
That was eight years ago. All three rhinos have been in Ol Pejeta Conservancy since.
Rhinos in the wild typically live up to around 35 years of age. Sudan’s 44 rhino years translate to roughly 99 human years. It's the reason he has bedsores bursting down his side — he can no longer turn himself over when he lies down. Arthritis means he walks at an impossible angle, his three-ton weight listing almost 45 degrees with each step.
Sudan can’t bathe himself, can’t have sex, can’t roll in the mud as rhinos love to do. He’s blind in his left eye, so, if he were in the wild, he’d likely have been killed in a fight with another territorial male by now.
Old age explains why Sudan is living out his last days isolated in a private enclosure, fenced off from the surrounding grasslands. “Sudan is very old so the others would try to bully him,” Mwenda said.
Sudan’s loneliness is starting to wear on his keeper. “I started putting myself in his shoes,” Mwenda said, rubbing his charge's trumpetlike ears gently. “I started feeling the burden of Sudan.”
It may appear uniquely a sign of the times that he became a viral sensation after appearing on Tinder, but Sudan’s lonely twilight years are the tip of a far deeper problem.
As isolated as he is, even a cursory search through recent history reveals any number of heartbreaking last-of-a-kinds.
There’s the last wild carrier pigeon, shot dead by a boy with a BB gun in 1900. “Booming Ben,” the last heath hen in Martha’s Vineyard, spent his final years calling to females no longer there to hear his mating call. Lonesome George died alone in the Galápagos after scientists searched for a decade to find another Pinta Island tortoise for him to mate with.
In the last half billion years, Earth has undergone what’s known as the Big Five extinctions, triggered, among other things, by volcanoes, an intense ice age, and a cataclysmic asteroid collision. The latter wiped out the dinosaurs. Humanity is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction — the “Holocene” extinction — and thanks to mankind’s alteration of the world, it’s coming at a rate 100 times faster than every other before it.
Humans have bludgeoned, battered, hunted, fished, and driven countless animals into extinction. In June 2015, a group of scientists published a paper with alarming conclusions. Three-quarters of today’s known species, from birds to frogs to big cats, could die out entirely within 300 years. And since we only know about a fraction of the animals in the Earth’s forests and oceans, that’s not even the whole picture.
But what if we could reverse that loss of species?
For decades, scientists have been trying to bring many of the most iconic extinct species back to life using advanced genetics. So far, they’ve succeeded in doing so once. In 1999, a clone of a bucardo, a wild goat native to the Pyrenees, was born — and died 10 minutes later after suffocating from a defective lung.
The idea of “de-extinction” is the result of the most advanced technologies of our times. Much of it sounds like the science fiction of Jurassic Park brought to life: One group of researchers is aiming to create a “Pleistocene park” in Siberia’s tundras, which will one day be populated with resurrected, modern-day woolly mammoths.
But de-extinction can take place on a less futuristic scale, too. Using advanced fertilization techniques that are still being refined, scientists hope to coax the northern white rhinos back from the brink of extinction.
These pioneering scientists often face mistrust from a public that has stereotyped images of scientists tinkering with life.
“People need to come and see the labs, it’s actually pretty boring. It’s not crazy, mad scientists in labs with beakers bubbling over,” said Ben Novak, lead scientist for Revive and Restore, a donor-funded, San Francisco–based organization attempting to bring back hybrids of several extinct species, including the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, and heath hen.
Scroll through any article about de-extinction and a common theme pops up: Biotech will make us more apathetic about conservation, the argument goes, as we will see it as a safety net that will always rescue us.
But a form of de-extinction has already been taking place through the protection work that game parks around the world undertake, Novak said. “[Biotechnology] isn’t a replacement for biodiversity. It’s an expansion of our tools.”
Some of the arguments come from within the scientific community. Last month, R. Alexander Pyron, an associate professor of biology at George Washington University, argued in a widely read article that extinction was the “engine of evolution,” generating new species as old ones die out, and should be allowed to take its own course. The only species humans should be trying to save, he argued, is ourselves.
But this new frontier — in which we’re down to the last three northern white rhinos, yet within grasp of bringing back a version of the extinct woolly mammoth — also raises a host of ethical questions alongside the potential solutions it offers. If humans are responsible for killing off entire species, should we try to undo that damage, or concentrate on trying to save those we still can?
The questions aren’t only philosophical. Researchers can make models, but they can’t predict exactly how a revived species would fit into existing food chains, nor where. For example, where, exactly, would a modern-day herd of sabertooth tigers be released? And what’s to say humans wouldn’t poach them out of existence?
And there’s the biggest metaphorical elephant in the room: Should we be bringing back dead species at all? Aren’t we, as the saying goes, playing God?
Richard Vigne has little patience for that argument. Born in western Kenya to a tea planter, Vigne is the CEO of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
“I think it’s the opposite [of playing God], actually,” he said, sitting in his office, a converted shipping container, at the sanctuary. “Once you get down to the last remaining three animals in the world, the chances of that species coming back are infinitesimally —” he rapped his desk for emphasis — “small.”
The procedure that scientists want to carry out on northern white rhinos is ambitious but painstaking. In vitro fertilization, or IVF, is an exquisitely specific process for every mammal — the protocols and procedures between, say, mice and rats are completely different — and requires years of trial and error to refine.
Since there are only two northern white rhino cows left, the groundwork has to be laid using southern white rhinos in zoos. Early next year, a group of scientists from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Italy hope to use a variation on a technique called “ovum pick up” to remove eggs from Najin and Fatu — this time performing the surgery in the field, rather than a zoo. The difficulty is finding a “Goldilocks” period, where the eggs are harvested neither too early nor too late to be inseminated. Getting it right is a process of trial and error that depends on practicing with the eggs. But each unsuccessful attempt means one less egg, and one less chance to get it right.
At the end of a 15- to 17-month pregnancy, if all goes well, scientists will then have the first northern white rhino calf.
Then, the whole process has to be repeated. And repeated again. And again, until there are enough to release a single herd into the wild. And, because they’re starting from such a small gene pool, new genetic material will have to be added in as numbers grow.
That’s where the kind of research being done at the San Diego Frozen Zoo comes in. Genetics was in its infancy when the institute began collecting and freezing small samples of skin from hundreds of animals some 40 years ago, including samples from 12 northern whites. “For many species, these kind of approaches offer the best hope for their long-term survival. Having that variety of options ... is so important because our powers of prediction are very limited,” said Oliver Ryder, the institute’s director of genetics.
But success isn’t just about genetics. “These animals are going to be born to southern [white rhino] surrogates … with different habits and different environmental preferences,” Vigne said.
There’s an example in Sudan himself. White rhinos have the name because, the folklore goes, it’s a corruption of the word “wide”; as grassland grazers, they have wider, flatter mouths than their shrub-eating black cousins. But Sudan was so young when he was snatched, and lived in captivity for so long, that by the time he returned to the continent 25 years later, he’d lost all knowledge of how to graze. His caretakers had to hand-feed him instead.
For a brief while, Sudan wasn’t lonely.
In October 2015, rangers on patrol a few miles from the enclosure came across the near-lifeless body of a tiny southern white rhino. Just a few weeks old, the calf was too sick to stand, and had been abandoned by his mother — a common occurrence among rhinos. Veterinarians nursed him back to health.
As he got better, the calf, named Ringo, would spend hours in Sudan’s enclosure. Sudan had once been a captive baby. Now, for the first time in years, the geriatric rhino had a companion.
Still hornless, the baby would run happily around Sudan. The older rhino, in turn, seemed to forget his ailments during their playtimes.
“The bond was so special. Sudan was happy again,” Mwenda said, smiling at the memory. Unprompted, he pulled out a cracked iPhone to show his favorite photo: himself, Sudan, and Ringo, still barely knee height.
Nine months later, the calf suddenly fell ill. This time there was nothing the vets could do to save him.
After Ringo died last July, Mwenda said, Sudan spent two weeks looking for him in the corners of his enclosure. When he couldn’t find him, he’d sit down and start making a noise “like he was crying.”
Mwenda grew up in a farming family not far from Nanyuki, the scruffy town beyond Ol Pejeta’s gates. Life there revolves around agriculture or conservation. Motorbike taxi riders in the town center wear visibility vests emblazoned with “save the rhinos.” An ad for reinforced concrete walls urges customers to “give your walls a tough hide.” A fundraising “bring back black” rhino charity ball was held in December.
Mwenda started his career as a patrolling ranger. Armed with rifles, they run the very real risk of death by poachers willing to kill to get their loot. “We have all lost someone this way,” he said matter-of-factly.
But the risk isn’t just from poachers. In order to let rhinos live as naturally as possible, the rangers let them wander freely. It takes manpower to monitor and track their behavior, making sure they aren’t sick or injured or killed overnight.
On a recent October afternoon, Mwenda and some former colleagues, who still work as patrolling rangers, set off to track rhinos in the sprawling park. Dried grass crackled underfoot as they began a walk that could take them up to 12 miles. Every so often, a ranger crouched and threw a handful of dust into the wind — that’s how they test that the wind isn’t blowing their scent toward rhinos, which have a powerful sense of smell. “It gives us time,” said Willie Okoth, a veteran with 20 years' experience. “If anything comes at you, run up a tree,” he added, gesturing at the spindly eucalyptuses nearby. The meager shelter could save your life from the elephants, buffalo, or big cats that roam the park.
Mwenda was promoted to working with Sudan after two grueling years in the field. Now, six days a week, he gets up at dawn to begin preparing for his charge. In the bare-bones hut where he and other rangers live, fifty yards from Sudan’s enclosure, he keeps a faded photograph of the two of them standing together tacked to the wall.
As someone for whom the devastation wrought by poaching is not just abstract, Mwenda is surprisingly forgiving.
“The energy we use to blame poachers, to post negative words online and social media, is the energy we can use to save rhinos. Because as long as there’s a market, it’s pointless [to blame poachers],” he explained.
In truth, the decline of rhino populations through human activity began long before the modern conflicts of Africa annihilated their numbers. Thirty different species of rhino once roamed the earth. Beloved by sculptors for their translucent quality, rhino horns litter recorded history, carved as hairpins and paperweights, dagger handles and cups. On the African continent, British, French, Dutch, Belgian, and Portuguese colonialists killed rhinos during trophy hunts. In parts of Asia, it was thought horns could purify water and detect poison.
Contrary to popular belief, demand for rhinos' horns today isn’t driven by its use as an aphrodisiac in Southeast Asia. Instead, it’s traditionally been used as a balm to treat fevers and other ailments. Today, it’s also seen as a status symbol among the rich. For all their mythical powers, though, rhino horns are mostly made up of keratin — the same stuff as human hair and fingernails.
A kilo of rhino horn today fetches upward of $60,000 — more than twice the value of gold — on the black market. The market is so lucrative, the United Nations Environment Programme warns that it’s being tapped by terrorist groups. What’s undeniable is that poaching networks extend far beyond the impoverished foot soldiers doing the slaying on the ground in Africa. This year, poachers broke into a zoo outside Paris, shot a 4-year-old white rhino in the head, and used a chainsaw to hack off his horn.
In 2011, a wave of rhino horn heists hit Europe: Some 70 rhino horn goods on display or loan were stolen from museums, castles, and exhibitions. Dvur Králové zoo, where Sudan was first taken in the Czech Republic, had two horns loaned out to exhibitions in a castle. Both were stolen.
The zoo has, in recent years, experimented with several alternatives — including preemptively sawing off the horns of its rhinos, a painless procedure that doesn’t prevent them from growing back.
But the latest thefts pushed them to repeat something they did in 2014 — burning their stockpile of rhino horns. Some have argued that if neither poaching nor the stockpiles they produce can be completely eliminated, legalizing — and controlling — the sale of horns would be better instead. But to Jan Stejskal, the director of international projects at the zoo, any attempts to legalize such sales would lend dangerous legitimacy to the trade and probably fuel more poaching. “The burning is to show that there’s no value to keeping rhino horns in stock. If I cut my fingernails, I don’t keep it,” Stejskal said.
Conservation is costly, and there’s an argument that it makes little sense to throw money and manpower that's already limited at a species that’s literally on its last legs.
That's a moot point for Kes Smith, a conservationist who spent decades caring for the last population of wild northern white rhinos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After decades of heavy poaching, the herd had dwindled to just 15 known individuals. “Even through two wars, we were able to double those numbers with protection,” Smith said. “So much depends on motivation and support of the people who are doing the work.”
“There were people who said if there’s only roughly 15 left in Garamba National Park, maybe they should all be taken into captivity and held until Garamba was secure — that would not have worked,” said Smith, who went on to start a project at the park. “They would have just become captive zoo animals and we would not have had sufficient justification to start our project for the rhinos and Garamba. It’s not just the numbers of sub-species — it’s the whole ecosystem and what they represent, that all benefits.”
Across Africa, conservation has often been a thorny issue for many reasons. In Kenya, the creation of national parks has often pushed traditional herders and hunters off land. Historical racial tensions between black Kenyans and the descendants of white settlers persist. In recent months, herders searching for fresh grazing land have shot wild animals and vandalized conservancies and farms. In March, a white Kenyan rancher was shot dead by herders, prompting the government to send the military to quell the violence.
Smith says the experienced rangers she’s worked with have recently told her of sightings of northern white rhino tracks, and believe a handful may have learned to successfully hide from humans — their predators — in the wild.
Dawn had just broken and a line of buffalo, black against the morning mist, traversed the plains that stretch out to Mt. Kenya’s snowcapped peak in the distance. About a dozen Spanish tourists were at the park to see an even bigger draw — Sudan. They paid $85 for a day pass. Those funds will go toward keeping the game park’s several dozen protected species safe.
There was a hushed excitement as they were shepherded into the enclosure, clutching their cameras as they skirted around the rhino’s blind side.
In September this year, the park decided to stop allowing people to lay their hands on Sudan. “For animal lovers it was always a very special thing,” Mwenda said, but he’d noticed it had started agitating Sudan. Desperate to make him more comfortable, his rangers cut down the number of daily permitted visitors and let him sleep in.
With the Spanish tourists, a routine unfolded. Sudan was fed hay bales to distract him while the tourists posed at a safe distance. The sound of cameras and iPads clicking filled the air.
Later, when the tourists had gone, Mwenda let out a barely audible sigh. “I’ve adjusted my mind to the bitter truth that one day he will fall and he will be no more. But I can see the bigger picture. Sudan had a purpose.”
At the sound of his keeper's voice, the rhino ambled toward the wooden beams of his enclosure. Mwenda gently rubbed Sudan’s rough skin, moving his hand in wide arcs across the expanse of the rhino’s sides, his hand making a noise like a brush over sandpaper. He stroked under the rhino’s chin, then over his broad snout. There’s an unexpectedly soft, silky triangle right where Sudan’s ears begin to protrude upward. Mwenda tickled him there, because Sudan likes that best.
He patted the rhino’s huge back one final time and turned away. Sudan pressed himself against the wooden beams of the enclosure and looked out, but Mwenda had gone.
So the rhino turned and stood alone under a date tree, waiting.