“The fate of my species literally depends on me,” read the Tinder profile for a northern white rhino named Sudan, posted last year. Now, Sudan ― the world’s last male northern white rhino ― is battling a grave illness, and faces death with no progeny in sight.
Sudan is one of three remaining northern white rhinos on Earth, all protected 24/7 by armed guards at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Sudan’s companions are Najin and Fatu, both younger females. Considered elderly for a rhino at age 45, Sudan has been placed on death watch as he battles a leg infection his caretakers say is not responding to treatment. The life expectancy of white rhinos in captivity is about 40 to 50 years.
“We don’t think he will last for much longer,” Elodie Sampere, an Ol Pejeta spokeswoman, told CNN last week, adding that “euthanasia will be explored” if it becomes clear that the rhino is suffering and has no chance of recovery.
Sudan’s death would mark a grim milestone in the story of the northern white rhino, a subspecies that numbered over 2,000 as recently as 1960. Poaching, fueled by demand for rhino horn, drove the subspecies to the brink of extinction. By 1984, just 15 of the animals were left.
When Angalifu, a male living at the San Diego Zoo, died in 2014, Sudan became the last living male of his subspecies — and a symbol for rhino conservation worldwide. To raise awareness about the animals’ plight, Ol Pejeta partnered with the dating app Tinder last year to create a profile for Sudan.
“I perform well under pressure. I like to eat grass and chill in the mud,” read the tongue-in-cheek Tinder listing. “6 ft tall and 5,000lbs if it matters.”
With Sudan ailing and his female companions both suffering from conditions making them physically incapable of pregnancy, the future of the northern white rhino is bleak. As National Geographic put it last month, the subspecies would “require nothing short of a miracle to be saved from extinction.”
Still, conservationists are clinging to that possible miracle. After years of futile attempts to breed Sudan, Fatu and Najin naturally, the rhinos’ caretakers have been looking at a far more costly ― and controversial ― option: in vitro fertilization.
IVF in rhinos has never been successfully performed, but conservationists say it’s the only hope of saving the northern white rhino from extinction. Since Najin and Fatu can’t physically bear progeny, scientists are banking on using a female southern white rhino as a surrogate mother. Sex cells will be harvested from Najin and Fatu, before fertilizing them in vitro with stored sperm cells harvested from (now long-dead) northern white males. If all goes well, the embryo will be implanted into the surrogate.
Ol Pejeta said last year that they hope to carry out the procedure in 2018. “The fate of the northern white rhino subspecies depends on this operation going smoothly,” the conservancy said in a May press release.
If that doesn’t work, the absolute last resort would be to impregnate a southern white rhino with sperm from a northern white. Southern white rhinos, which number about 17,000 in the wild, are a distinct subspecies. Still, crossing the two subspecies would be better than complete extinction, conservationists have said.
All five remaining rhino species worldwide are considered threatened, according to the conservation group Save the Rhino. Three of the five species are critically endangered.