Northern White Rhinos in Peril

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Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Rhino-lovers worldwide suffered a tragic loss last week. It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of Suni, a male northern white rhino living at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni died a natural death at age 34 on October 18, 2014, leaving only six northern white rhinos in the world. This subspecies is critically endangered and is extinct in the wild: three remain at the conservancy in Kenya, a zoo in the Czech Republic houses one, and two live at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Northern white rhinos are in peril because of poaching. Some cultures believe that rhino horn is medicine, which drives the price per ounce higher than that of gold. Rhino horn is actually made of keratin, which is the same substance that your nails and hair are made of. In addition, there are sustainable, FDA-approved medicinal alternatives to rhino horn, such as aspirin and Viagra. But that has not stopped the terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates who use poaching as a means to fund their illicit activities.

Northern white rhinos have had an exceptionally troublesome history. Their cousins, the southern white rhinos, are also highly poached for their horns. However, in 1929, the South African government interceded on behalf of these rhinos and hired the poachers as game wardens to protect the rhinos. The poachers at the time were impoverished farmers, so offering them an alternative source of income meant that they no longer needed to poach to supplement their livelihoods. This strategy worked: 40 years later, the number of rhinos in South Africa increased tenfold. North Africa was unable to employ a similar strategy to help the northern white rhinos because North African countries at the time were fraught with civil war, poverty, and disease. Governments were so worried about keeping their citizens alive that they had little time or money to spare for the rhinos. And, until recently, scientists thought northern and southern white rhinos were the same species, so this lack of funds did not seem important.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Dr. Oliver Ryder at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research discovered that northern white rhinos are a separate subspecies by examining mitochondrial DNA. Even though this subspecies will go extinct in our lifetime, the Institute for Conservation Research has created a ray of hope for the future in its Frozen Zoo®.

The Frozen Zoo contains viable cell cultures from many different species that have been cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen (think Han Solo in Star Wars). The Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos; from these samples, scientists like Dr. Ryder can generate pluripotent stem cells. These cells can be triggered to create any tissue in the body. Such technical advances make southern white rhino surrogacy and cloning possibilities for the future of northern white rhinos.

In the meantime, guests can visit two of the world’s remaining six northern white rhinos at the Safari Park. Nola, a female born in 1974, lives in the South Africa field exhibit; Angalifu, a male born in 1972, lives in the Central Africa field exhibit. Both of them are past breeding age, so they are living quiet lives of retirement with the other wildlife in their field habitats. Guests can see these two unique rhinos by taking the Africa Tram tour, a Cart Safari, or a Caravan Safari.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide. Read her previous post, Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

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