Dvůr Kralové Zoo mourns death of last male northern white rhino on Earth, but retains hopes of saving breed

Sudan, photo: CTK

The last surviving male northern white rhino died in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on Monday. He and two other females who represent the last of their breed belong to Dvůr Kralové Zoo which is spearheading international efforts to save the breed from extinction. I spoke over the phone to the zoo’s special projects coordinator Jan Stejskal who flew to Kenya when Sudan’s condition deteriorated and asked him what happened.

Sudan in 2017, photo: CTK
“Actually in the end he was euthanized because he developed age-related complications that led to the degeneration of his muscles and his bones and this combined with skin wounds. During his last hours he actually was not able to stand up, so I think it was necessary to take this course of action – so as not to prolong his suffering. That is the reason why specialists from Dvůr Kralové Zoo together with Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Kenya Wildlife Service decided to end his life.”

A very sad moment for Dvůr Kralové Zoo which is spearheading international efforts to save this breed…

“It is true that this is really a sad moment but, on the other hand, I think that Sudan will be remembered for his remarkable life. When he was moved to Dvůr Kralové Zoo in the 1970s he escaped being killed by poachers in his homeland and in our zoo he contributed to saving his own species because he sired two female rhinos and when he returned to Africa in 2009 he became really beloved here in Ol Pejeta. I witnessed here what a sad moment it was for the keepers because they really loved him for his dignity and for his strength that he retained until his last days.”

There are now two remaining female northern white rhinos left in the world. What’s ahead for the breed?

Wildlife ranger Zachariah Mutai with Sudan in 2017, photo: CTK
“Well, sad as it is, if you look at it from a wider perspective then the prospects of survival for northern white rhinos are better than they were a few years ago when there were more animals. The reason is that during the last few years we have progressed in developing techniques of artificial reproduction that could help us to save them. And these two females are crucial for future attempts. They both appear to be good donors of eggs and we hope that in a few months we will return to Kenya, to Ol Pejeta, with an international team of experts and try to harvest their eggs and take them to Italy where we would try to make an embryo in lab conditions and then we would come back here to Ol Pejeta and put that embryo into a surrogate mother of southern white rhino origin. That is how a northern white rhino calf could be born.”

So you still have hope then that the breed can be saved?

“Yes, yes, there is still a chance to save them and, unbelievable as it may sound, there are genetic techniques or cellular technologies that could help us and that mean that even Sudan could still have offspring in the future.”