Northern White Rhino Extinction: Can Science Save the Subspecies?

The northern white rhinoceros has a long road back from the brink of extinction, but not all hope is lost for this subspecies. There are methods scientists could potentially use to save the mammal.

Kenya-based Ol Pejeta Conservancy announced that the last male northern white rhino, 45-year-old Sudan, died on Monday. The veterinarians who were treating him euthanized him because he "was suffering a great deal" from issues with his bones, muscles and skin related to his age. There are now only two northern white rhinos left alive, and they are both females: Sudan's daughter Najin and her daughter Fatu, who are living at Ol Pejeta.

White rhinos can be divided into two subspecies—in addition to the northern white rhino, there is also the southern white rhino.

Sudan's death came a few weeks after reports that his health was deteriorating and about 2.5 years after the last northern white rhino death. In late 2015, the 41-year-old female Nola died from a bacterial infection. She had been living by herself at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Circumstances are alarming for the northern white rhino, with now only two members still standing. But Sudan may help conservationists and his subspecies from beyond the grave. Ol Pejeta said officials collected his genetic material "for future attempts at reproduction of northern white rhinos through advanced cellular technologies."

Najin and Fatu are not able to conceive naturally, according to Ol Pejeta, but that's where technology comes in. The charity Helping Rhinos notes that there has been research into creating a calf using in vitro fertilization.

If that fails, and Najin and Fatu die without bringing new rhino life, there are other last-ditch efforts scientists have used to revive a species, including a special breeding strategy that attempts to recreate lost animals.

The last two northern white rhinos in the world, females Fatu and Najin, graze on March 20, 2018, at their home in a Kenya conservancy. TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

On Ecuador's Galápagos Islands, for example, scientists are trying to make a species of tortoise de-extinct by selectively breeding close relatives such that their genes veer toward those of the disappeared population. It is possible because the experts found the genetic material of the extinct Floreana tortoise in the members of another group, as a result of previous interbreeding. By strategically matching up the mixed-ancestry tortoises, the team hopes to move future generations closer and closer to a purer version of the Floreana tortoise.

If the right genetic material is available, scientists might have a chance to follow a similar protocol for northern white rhinos.

Although saving an animal from near-extinction is difficult, it's not an impossible task; experts have revived white rhinos before. According to the World Wildlife Fund, people once thought southern white rhinos were extinct until a small group was found in eastern South Africa in 1895. From that band of fewer than 100 animals, conservationists helped grow their numbers to more than 20,000.

Northern white rhinos have been trending downward for decades, thanks to the poachers who seek their horns—and the horns of the other rhino species.

"The future for this subspecies is very bleak," the WWF says.

If scientists manage to bring back the northern white rhino from the edge of a cliff, perhaps they could apply their methods to other rhino types. There are only five rhino species left on the Earth, and all of them are in danger. Javan and Sumatran rhinos are in the direst straits, with only a few dozen Javan rhinos left standing and only about 200 Sumatran rhinos still alive.

Overall, the white rhino species is the most well off—it is under threat but it is the sole rhino species that is not teetering on the edge of extinction as a whole. Still, it is on unstable ground and even the southern white rhino subspecies is in peril due to human activities. Just last year, poachers broke into a French zoo and killed a white rhino before sawing off one of its horns. The four-year-old rhino, Vince, was shot in the head during the first poaching incident inside a zoo, shocking the conservation community.