Science

The “Functional Extinction” Of The Northern White Rhino And What It Means Going Forward


TL;DR (3-minute read)

– Around three years ago, we learned of the passing of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the known wild, thus rendering their population ‘functionally extinct.’ Now, there are just two white rhinos left on Earth, both female.

– Northern white rhinos once used to thrive in the plains of Africa, but in the 20th century, poaching for rhino horns became incredibly popular during this era for medicinal purposes but also as a means to flaunt wealth.

– Scientists were able to take samples of Sudan’s sperm and freeze those samples in their labs. This would allow for more research to be done into the potential restoration of the species, a field that is rapidly developing in our time. The effects of such research could be on grand proportions; species could essentially never go extinct as long as their genetic materials are taken and frozen in advance.


Around three years ago, we learned of the passing of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the known wild, thus rendering their population ‘functionally extinct.’ Now, there are just two white rhinos left on Earth, both female. These species have walked the Earth for millions upon millions of years, endured the test of time, and made it through the harshest of conditions only to be decimated in the era of humanity. As a result of inexorable poaching and hunting for the highly sought-after rhino horns, populations declined and conservation efforts were stymied. Despite the dire circumstances there is still hope to this day; scientists were able to extract the genetic material from both males and females of the species, in an effort to create northern white rhino embryos to revive the population. As the era of the northern white rhinoceros comes to a somber close, there is a necessity to ask ourselves where we went wrong in the past as well as what we can do in the future regarding situations similar to this one. 

Key Questions to Consider:

  1. What happened to the population?
  2. What should we consider regarding the future of conservation efforts?
A northern white rhino, one of just two left in the world, roams around within its habitat in Kenya. (GlobalGuardian/Shutterstock)

1: What happened to the population?

Northern white rhinos once used to thrive in the plains of Africa, where scores of their population roamed the terrain. Estimates ranged from tens to hundreds of thousands around a century ago. However, poaching for rhino horns became incredibly popular during this era for medicinal purposes but also as a means to flaunt wealth. Many rhino species suffered considerably, but the northern white rhino population was hit hardest in the 1980s; their population was drastically reduced by around 80% in that decade alone, and there were just 50 or so rhinos left in the wild. The conservation efforts of northern white rhinos, unlike southern white rhinos, proved to be in vain, and it soon became clear that the extinction of the northern white rhino would be inevitable, as Sudan became the last male in the wild. His death carries a lot of meaning and shows the futility of our attempts at wildlife conservation in this era. Reflecting on past efforts at saving these populations helps us understand what caused these extinctions and the gravity of them as well.

2: What should we consider regarding the future of conservation efforts?

Images of various northern white rhino embryos ready for use when the technology for artificial breeding can be put to use. (Cesare Galli/Avantea)

As stated earlier, conservation efforts for the northern white rhino species in the wild are essentially useless at this point; however, scientists were able to take samples of Sudan’s sperm and freeze those samples in their labs. This would allow for more research to be done into the potential restoration of the species, a field that is rapidly developing in our time. The effects of such research could be on grand proportions; species could essentially never go extinct as long as their genetic materials are taken and frozen in advance. The extinction of the northern white rhinos will essentially become another project for scientists to research when it comes to reviving species from the brink of extinction or from extinction itself. Traditional conservation efforts to keep what is left have been undermined by the research and the development of technologies attributed to the efforts at restoring what has been lost.

Sources

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2020/01/15/northern-white-rhino-embryos-ready-implant-project-bring-back/

https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/northern-white-rhinos-are-almost-gone-should-scientists-bring-them-back

https://time.com/5482842/time-top-10-photos-2018-sudan-northern-white-rhino/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/life-changing-lessons-of-the-last-male-northern-white-rhino

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