Obituary by Dr Kes Hillman Smith
Sudan, the last known male Northern White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) died on Monday 19th March aged 45, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where he has been living for the last seven years.
As probably the most famous male rhino in the world, with a vast Facebook following, he has appeared in numerous films and documentaries world-wide, including starring in the BBC film with his name, “Sudan, The Last Rhinos”. Sudan and the last known female Northern White Rhinos Najin and her daughter Fatu have been symbolic of the fight to save a major charismatic sub-species from extinction in our lifetimes.
Their compatriots, Northern White Rhinos in the wild have shown some of the greatest successes and rapid rates of increase, proving how important it is to conserve them in their natural habitats, but they also symbolise some of the toughest challenges that conservation is up against, living in amazing but remote ecosystems with other rare and valuable sub-species they have been beset by wars, armed conflict, power politics, corruption, exploitation to fund wars, and limited financial support.
All this is to feed illegal and illogical trade markets, with maximum benefit to the middlemen, not to the poachers and rangers who risk their lives, or even to the end users and certainly not to the rhinos themselves. We had the rare and wonderful privilege of working with them in the wild, in Garamba National Park, seeing the successes and rapid production of calves in the wild and even the successes of conservation in war, but also seeing the overwhelming tipping of the scales, for the wrong reasons, until they are certainly very close to extinction in the wild and certainly in areas of difficult access.
So thanks to “Back to Africa” Sudan, Najin, Fatu and another male Suni came from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic in 2010 back to protected natural habitat in Africa, to give them a chance to develop natural social systems to stimulate breeding, with high tech back up from the development of assisted reproduction techniques by the Berlin Institute and the Reproductive Department of San Diego Wild Animal Park.
The loss of dear old Sudan who tore at heart strings by bringing a realisation of the reality to many people, is a huge blow, but we hope it is still not too late to save the sub-species
Sudan had been born in 1973 in South Sudan, in an area that later became Shambe Game Reserve. Just west of the Nile and the swamps of the Sudd, this was a habitat of seasonal 6 foot high grass and floods, with scattered bush and lawns grazed short by Northern White Rhinos and hippos.
For his first two years Sudan roamed free here with his mother, learning to eat the nutritious short grass and to hide when necessary in the long grass and bush. In 1975 he was caught with five other young rhinos by the capture team of Josef Wagner, Director and creator of the Dvur Kralove Zoological Garden in what is now the Czech Republic.
In the 1960s and 70s eight expeditions organised by Wagner had captured many African animals of a range of species. Although such captures are anathema these days, the zoo thus became an important breeding reservoir of wildlife that was often declining in its natural habitat and from which many species have been re-introduced to the wild. The young Sudan tamed quickly and became a favourite in the capture camp.
Transported back to Dvur Kralove with another young male Saut and four females, Sudan learned to adapt to the different climate of seasonal snows and the regimes of care of zoo rhinos. Breeding in zoos is challenging if facilities do not allow sufficient habitat for the males to become territorial and the females to move between them when in oestrus and often the animals grow up more like brothers and sisters.
However a newcomer may stimulate breeding and when Nasima who had been caught in Uganda came to Dvur Kralove, she was mated first by Saut and in 1980 gave birth to a male Suni, then in 1983 Sudan and Nasima had a daughter Nabire and in 1989 Nasima became a mother again, this time to the female Najin. But very little other Northern White breeding was happening in captivity.
The wild populations of northern white rhinos have had ups and downs with the vagaries of life in and near regions of armed conflict. Having ranged in the early 20th century from Southern Chad, through Central African Republic, southern Sudan and northern Congo/Zaire to West Nile in Uganda, by the early 1980s they appeared limited to Southern National Park, Nimule and Shambe in Sudan, a few translocated from West Nile to Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda and the best hope was the population in Garamba National Park in what was then Zaire.
Even this population had been decimated from over 1,000 in 1960 to about 200 during the post-Independence Simba Rebellion. After increasing with protection to over 490 by 1976, they were again slaughtered by the widespread poaching of the late 1970s and early 80s amplified by the civil war across the border in southern Sudan.
When we started the Garamba Project in 1984 there were only 15 Northern White Rhinos left there and elephants had declined from over 22,000 to about 5,000. But with the combination of ideal habitat and effective protection, numbers of both rhinos and elephants doubled in eight years and it was delightful to be constantly finding new rhino calves.
In the meantime the rhinos in captivity had been gradually decreasing and in 1995 a meeting brought together zoo and wild stakeholders of the Northern Whites to discuss saving the species through managing them as a meta-population, establishing a secure back up breeding population of rhinos with individuals from both wild and captivity.
Options were assessed and either Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya or White Oak Conservation Center in Florida offered the best combination of habitat, climate and security, but no decision could be agreed. Positive follow up from the meeting led to developing hormonal monitoring and reproductive stimulation at both San Diego Wild Animal Park and Dvur Kralove and later to the transfer in 1998 of the un-related male Saut from San Diego back to Dvur Kralove. This led to several matings and in March 1999 Najin conceived. Her daughter who became the much lauded “Baby of the Millenium” was born on 29th June 2000 and named Fatu.
In the wild, Garamba, while successfully combating the increasing poaching from the war in Sudan, was hit by the Liberation War in early 1997. All rangers were disarmed and anti-poaching ceased for 3 months. Elephant numbers halved and the rhino population stopped increasing, though with 5 births during those few months numbers remained the same. The effect of the war that started in August 1998 in what was then the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was less dramatic but longer lasting.
Conservation continued successfully with the help of the UN Foundation/UNESCO/ICCN programme for conservation of the 5 World Heritage Sites during Armed Conflict and rhino numbers were held stable. But with a ceasefire in South Sudan, in 2004 the mbororo or Janjaweed horsemen from the north were able to get through the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)-held border area and into Garamba, starting a massacre of elephants and rhinos. The proposal to rescue a few and hold them temporarily at Ol Pejeta caused a political storm and had to be shelved. Now they are feared to be almost extinct in the wild though there are still reports and sighting from a remote area of Sudan.
This left the only practical hope of saving the Northern White Rhinos from total extinction being reliant on the rhinos left in Dvur Kralove and the new technical developments for assisted reproduction. With support from “Back to Africa” organisation, Dvur Kralove and Ol Pejeta collaborated to bring Sudan, Suni, Najin and Fatu from the snows of Czech Republic to the warmth of Laikipia, Kenya, where at Ol Pejeta Conservancy they have been receiving maximum protection in a natural habitat.
Some matings have been recorded but no conceptions to date and time is running. In 2016 Suni died leaving Sudan as the only male but emphasising the importance of the situation and adding stimulus to developing the techniques of safe oocyte extraction, in vitro fertilisation and implantation in surrogate mothers. It also emphasises the importance of being able to follow up the reports of rhinos in remote areas. Even the slimmest of chances are worthwhile at this stage. Humans led to this situation. Let us do all we can to preserve this unique species.
Dr Kes Hillman Smith
Editor, Garamba, Conservation in Peace & War
P.O. Box 15024
+254 (0)733 731108