Rhinos are the second largest land-bound mammals in the world after elephants. They are also one of the most hunted species due to the many uses that can be found for their horns and hides. During the poaching crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, the many populations of northern white rhino that were spread out across their native home ranges in Africa were decimated to profit from the ivory in their horns. The demand for this product comes predominantly from China, being used in their medicines as well as in the construction of weapon handles in Yemen. This same demand is what has fueled the widespread poaching for elephants and their tusks.
Last week it was announced that the last surviving male northern white rhino, named Sudan, had passed away. He left two females behind, and it is now proposed that preserving this slowly disappearing sub-species of white rhino lies in developing IVF techniques that will allow preserved sperm – taken from Sudan before he passed – in order to inseminate the eggs of the two remaining females. These inseminated eggs will then be carried by a surrogate southern white rhino, as it is thought that neither of the Northern females would be capable of carrying a calf to full term.
The death of Sudan has a great impact on the lives of other animals as well. For instance, the fecal matter of Northern white rhinos are a vital food source for many insect species, the rhino’s skin is used as a living space for birds, and these rhinos shape the environment by breaking down trees in a way that facilitate the lives of other species. In many ways, the Northern white rhino is what is known as a keystone species. That is, a species on which other species are reliant for survival and nourishment. Loss of this particular species will undoubtedly have unforeseen ecological consequences and could result in important changes to the ecosystem to which they once belonged.
Many argue that all the money that will be placed into this IVF treatment could be put to better use, perhaps to fight diseases that affect humans – not animals. However, Professor Hildebrandt believes that this quite an arrogant view to take about the topic. He believes we as humans can’t be responsible for the extinction of a species in the wild, and then be allowed to question why this rhino population is worth recovering and protecting. He also plans to apply a similar technique to restore the populations of the Sumatran rhino, of which there are only about 30 left in Borneo. In the words of Ami Vitale, a National Geographic photographer, “We are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind.”
Humans are one of the most social species on the planet. Our ability to interact with one another, organize ourselves collectively into groups, and split the population into tasks that keep our world revolving has arguably allowed us to expand and reach population sizes that are seen in no other mammals except in social insects. Insects are small, they can afford to reach these population sizes and have the necessary resources to do so. Humans, however, have expanded their populations at the expense of other species in the world that we are meant to cohabit the earth with, one of which now appears to be the northern white rhino.