We're Down To 5 Northern White Rhinos: Is It Too Late For Babies?

Dec 17, 2014
Originally published on December 17, 2014 7:07 pm

A 44-year-old northern white rhino named Angalifu died this week at the San Diego Zoo of old age.

Now only five animals remain in this subspecies, all in captivity. Four are females. The lone male lives in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

So it would seem the northern white rhino is doomed to extinction. Poachers are to blame — they've slain thousands of the rhinos to get their horns, which are hawked in Asia as a health tonic.

But there may still be a way to bring back this 2-ton creature. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is contemplating an idea. It's a bit complicated. But who knows?

First, a bit of history. There have been efforts to save the northern white rhino before. Rhinos rarely breed in captivity, so just before Christmas in 2009, four northern whites were airlifted from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya's Ol Pejeta. They were placed in the heavily guarded 600-acre enclosure designed to mimic their natural environment. The half-a-million-dollar operation was dubbed "Last Chance To Survive." The CEO of Ol Pejeta, Richard Vigne, says the rhinos regained wild habits like nocturnal feeding. Although it took more than two years till the happy day that a duo was spotted mating behind a bush.

"I don't think there was champagne uncorked," says Vigne. But those in the know kept watch and said the female was "definitely pregnant ... so you know we convinced ourselves pretty well that this was working."

It was a false alarm. There would be no pitter-patter of little hooves. Vigne wondered if maybe those years in a zoo cage had permanently knocked out the ability to reproduce.

In vitro fertilization is an option. But what takes 10 minutes for dairy cows is expensive and experimental in rhinos.

"You're dealing with a semi-wild, what, 2-ton animal?" he says. "Which is very different than dealing with completely domesticated cattle."

Now another plan is being considered: to extract a northern white rhino egg, fertilize it with frozen northern white rhino sperm and implant it in the surrogate womb of a genetically different subspecies: the southern white rhino.

The southern white rhinos look almost identical to the northerns, though they have a larger front horn and they also prefer a grassy environment while the northerns like denser bush.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the southern and northern white rhinos is their epic comeback story.

At the turn of the 20th century, southern white rhinos had been hunted down to a mere 20 animals. The last of the southerns were collected, protected and bred. Now they number more than 14,000.

"I have bred over 700 rhinos," says John Hume, a private rhino owner and breeder who has been an advocate for legalizing rhino horn, "and the southern white rhino is a relatively user-friendly animal. It wants to cooperate, it wants to breed, it does not want to go extinct."

Hume breeds them the old-fashioned way: He brings some males and females together and lets biology do the rest.

Why did the southern breeding efforts succeed where the northern attempts have so far failed? The southern white rhino attempts began when the animals were younger. They were also wilder. One hundred years ago, when those 20 last southern white rhinos were collected and bred, they were taken straight from the savannah, not from a zoo.

Perhaps what enabled them to breed is that little bit of wildness that never left them.

If plans for a surrogacy attempt are approved, the southern knack for survival might give a ray of hope to their near-extinct northern cousins.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A 44-year-old northern white rhino died of old age this week at the San Diego Zoo. This would be unremarkable, except that thousands of others have died unnaturally at the hands of poachers. Rhino horns are sold in Asia as a health tonic and status symbol. There are now five animals left of this subspecies called the northern white rhino. NPR's Gregory Warner reports why this animal is so hard to save.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Rhinos don't like to breed in zoos, so just before Christmas in 2009, four of the last northern white rhino on the planet were airlifted from a zoo in the Czech republic to a conservancy in Kenya called Ol Pejeta. They were placed in a heavily guarded, 600-acre enclosure designed to mimic their natural environment, and the half-a-million-dollar operation was called Last Chance to Survive.

The CEO of Ol Pejeta, Richard Vigne, says the rhinos soon regained wild habits like nocturnal feeding, though it took more than two years before the happy day when they were spotted mating.

RICHARD VIGNE: I don't think there was champagne on call, but I can tell you what there was, was daily visits to see if the female was getting fatter. And a lot of things were imagined. In other words, we were told repeatedly by the keepers who knew them very well that they were definitely pregnant. They were definitely changing their habits. So, you know, we convinced ourselves pretty well that this was working.

WARNER: It was a false alarm. There would be no pitter-patter of little hooves. Vigne wondered, maybe those years in a zoo cage had permanently knocked out their ability to reproduce. The conservancy is contemplating in vitro fertilization, but what's a ten-minute procedure in a dairy cow is expensive and experimental in a rhino.

VIGNE: You're dealing with a semi-wild - what? - two-ton animal, which is very different from dealing with completely domesticated cattle.

WARNER: If they are too wild to be artificially impregnated but too tame to naturally reproduce, northern white rhino might be fated to fall through the cracks of evolution. Yet another plan is being considered to extract a northern white rhino egg, fertilize it with frozen northern white rhino sperm, and implant it in the surrogate womb of a related subspecies, the southern white rhino. And the southerns have their own epic comeback story. At the turn of the last century they'd been hunted down to a mere 20 animals. They were collected, protected and bred to what is now more than 14,000.

JOHN HUME: My name is John Hume. I have bred over 700 rhinos. The southern white rhino is a relatively user-friendly animal. It wants to cooperate. It wants to breed. It does not want to go extinct.

WARNER: And John Hume breeds them the natural way, and he credits the southern white rhino's personality - its ability to adapt to survive in our human world, one difference from their northern cousins. Well, a hundred years ago when those twenty last rhino were collected and bred, they were taken straight from savannah, not from a zoo. Perhaps what's enabled the southern white rhino to breed and given them a chance to survive in this human world is that little bit of wildness that never left them.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.