The death of Nola – a 41-year-old northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) – at the San Diego Zoo in California has brought the species one inexorable step closer to extinction.
“Nola, who lived here since 1989, was under veterinary care for a bacterial infection, as well as age-related health issues,” the zoo said in a statement on Sunday.
“In the last 24 hours, Nola’s condition worsened and we made the difficult decision to euthanise her.”
Back in 2009, four northern white rhinos – Najin, Fatu, Sudan and Suni – arrived at Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya from Dvur Králové zoo in the Czech Republic. Nabiré remained at the zoo.
Another two rhino lived at San Diego, a female – Nola – and a male -Angalifu.
According to Ol Pejeta, breeding attempts in the Czech Republic failed and it was hoped the animal’s home climate would provide them with more favourable breeding conditions.
The IUCN Red Data book stated the northern white rhino used to range over parts of north-western Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and added no live rhinos had been seen since 2006 and no fresh sign since 2007.
In October 2014 Suni died in Kenya of natural causes, leaving Sudan the only northern white male in the world capable of breeding.
Then in December 2014 Angalifu died in San Diego
This was followed by Nabiré, a 31-year-old female, which died of a ruptured cyst at Dvur Králové in July.
“In early 2015, checks by vets from the Czech Republic dealt us another blow – neither of the females is capable of natural reproduction, and Sudan’s sperm count was disappointingly low, but not surprising given his age of 42,” said Ol Pejeta spokesperson, Elodie Sampere.
Of the other rhino at Ol Pejeta, Najin is 26 years old with back leg problems which prevent her from mating.
Fatu, Najin’s daughter, has never bred at 15 years of age and suffered uterine problems preventing her from carrying a pregnancy.
“All of us on Ol Pejeta are highly invested in the survival of this species,” Sampere said. “The animals were brought to us in 2009 and we have grown very attached to them. Yes, this is devastating for all of us, but there is still some hope.”
The hope rests in surrogacy or, test tube rhinos.
“We are working with the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic to develop methods to extract eggs from the female and to create embryos that can then be reintroduced to southern white rhino females as surrogate,” Sampere said. “This method has still not been developed.”
San Diego Zoo noted it had genetic material from 13 northern whites which may lead to white rhino surrogate pregnancies, also once technology had advanced.
Until then, it seems as the northern white rhino is destined to join its cousin the West African black rhinoceros, declared extinct by the IUCN in 2011.