Rare Northern white rhino dies at Czech zoo, leaving just four in the world

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

Thirty-two-year-old Nabire, one of the last Northern white rhinos on Earth, died at Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic on Monday night from complications from a ruptured cyst. Her death brings the number of surviving Northern white rhinos to just four: three live on the Ol Pejeta Reserve in Kenya and one at the San Diego Zoo in the US. Jan Velinger has the details.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
The Northern white rhino is on the brink of extinction with the death of Nabire: only four specimens now survive in the world. All at one point passed through the zoo at Dvůr Králové nad Labem, which for years fought for the animal’s survival. It is the only facility that ever succeeded in breeding this species in captivity. The last rhino calf, however, was born there in 2000. Nabire, described as a lovely and quiet animal by zookeeper Jan Zďárek who cared for her for more than 20 years, had long-term health problems. So, specialists took steps to preserve cells and other genetic material (removing, for example, a healthy ovary) in the hopes an embryo could one day be bred artificially.

Jan Stejskal,  photo: ČT24
The zoo’s Jan Stejskal spoke to Czech Radio about the possibility:

“The rhino’s chances for survival are very slim. But there is still a theoretical chance that a surviving female egg could be artificially fertilized by sperm from the Northern white rhino. The embryo could then be carried by a Southern white rhino mother, as the Southern rhino is a close relative to the northern one.

“The problem is that no one has ever successfully done this before and we don’t have all the technology yet. That is one reason why we are consulting top experts in Berlin to try and optimise conditions.”

Photo: Jana Myslivečková,  Czech Radio
The near extinction of the northern white rhino by poachers was described by the Dvůr Králové nad Labem Zoo’s director as an example of “senseless greed”; indeed, were it not for the facility, it is doubtful at this point in time there would be any of the rhinos left at all. All four of the surviving animals were sent from the zoo, three of them to a nature reserve in Kenya, an aging male who was captured in the wild at the age of three and two females (who were born in captivity), in the hopes the rhino might breed again. Those hopes have faded. The aging female in the US at San Diego in the US, meanwhile, was provided by the former Czechoslovakia in 1989 in order to split rhinos into separate groups to prevent unexpected infectious illnesses from spreading and affecting all of the animals surviving then.

Photo: ČT24
The death of Nabire brings the Northern white rhino “one step closer” to extinction and it is clear that it will take a marathon effort on the part of specialists as well as considerable good fortune for the species to somehow survive and not disappear forever.