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On the 31st of March, a ceremony took place at the Rhino Memorial on Ol Pejeta ranch in Laikipia, in the foothills of Mt Kenya, to celebrate the life of Sudan, the most famous rhino in the world.
As the last male northern white rhino, the loss of Sudan on 19 March was a symbolic moment for the plight of this species — and a heartwrenching reminder of the vulnerability of so many endangered species across the globe.
Only two female northern white rhinos now survive — Sudan’s daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu — and the fate of the species now rests on some experimental IVF technology and the help of a surrogate female southern white rhino.
Sudan was born in the wild in southern Sudan in 1973, but captured two years later and taken to Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, along with another male and four females.
At that time, the population of the northern white rhino was already in rapid decline, falling from 2000 in 1960 to just 700 in 1970. By 1984 a mere 15 animals survived, in Garamba National Park, which was all wiped out during the civil war.
Only two calves are known to be fathered by Sudan. When the species was declared extinct in the wild, the decision was made to move him and three other northern white rhinos (Suni, Najin and Fatu) to Kenya, in the hope the natural environment would overcome the rhinos’ reluctance to breed in captivity.
The rhinos arrived at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in December 2009, soon settling into their new larger bomas.
The deaths of Suni and Angalifu in 2014 (two of the three remaining males) left Sudan as the last male of his species. Sadly, though, in 2015 tests showed he was unlikely to reproduce, and the females had lost interest, to the extent they eventually had to be kept in separate paddocks.
At this time he was introduced to Ringo, an abandoned southern white rhino calf, and the youngster’s playful persona invigorated Sudan. But this was shortlived, as Ringo died tragically in 2016.
A team of keepers had Sudan under constant watch to ensure his safety and ensuring he was well fed and kept in good health. This included giving him mud baths, to keep the body temperature cool and protect the body from flies and ticks.
Immense effort and resources were put into using raising awareness of the plight of rhinos, including educational campaigns in the Far East, led by WildAid, who enlisted Chinese actress Jiang Yiyan and basketball star Yao Ming to help get Sudan’s story out to the widest possible audience.
Fundraising and awareness campaigning included charity cricket matches played by the Maasai Cricket Warriors and a campaign by dating app Tinder and Ogilvy Africa who labelled him ‘the most eligible bachelor in the world’.
In recent years Sudan’s health started to deteriorate. He had been suffering from age-related health issues and a series of infections. On 19 March, with Sudan unable to stand up and evidently suffering, his veterinary team decided to euthanise him.
While Sudan’s profile and status were leveraged to highlight the plight of all endangered species, not just rhinos, his death has also brought overdue attention to the teams of people who work tirelessly to protect them. Much tribute has gone to the team of dedicated keepers who had committed their lives to look after Sudan.