“ The fate of my species literally depends on me, ” read the Tinder profile for a northern white rhino named Sudan , posted last year. Now, Sudan ― the world’ s last male northern white rhino ― is battling a grave illness, and faces death with no progeny in sight.
Sudan is one of three remaining northern white rhinos on Earth, all protected 24/7 by armed guards at Kenya’ s Ol Pejeta Conservancy . Sudan’ s companions are Najin and Fatu, both younger females. Considered elderly for a rhino at age 45, Sudan has been placed on death watch as he battles a leg infection his caretakers say is not responding to treatment . The life expectancy of white rhinos in captivity is about 40 to 50 years.
“ We don’ t think he will last for much longer, ” Elodie Sampere, an Ol Pejeta spokeswoman, told CNN last week, adding that “ euthanasia will be explored” if it becomes clear that the rhino is suffering and has no chance of recovery.
Sudan’ s death would mark a grim milestone in the story of the northern white rhino, a subspecies that numbered over 2, 000 as recently as 1960 . Poaching, fueled by demand for rhino horn , drove the subspecies to the brink of extinction. By 1984, just 15 of the animals were left.
When Angalifu, a male living at the San Diego Zoo, died in 2014 , Sudan became the last living male of his subspecies — and a symbol for rhino conservation worldwide. To raise awareness about the animals’ plight, Ol Pejeta partnered with the dating app Tinder last year to create a profile for Sudan.
“ I perform well under pressure. I like to eat grass and chill in the mud, ” read the tongue-in-cheek Tinder listing. “ 6 ft tall and 5, 000lbs if it matters. ”
With Sudan ailing and his female companions both suffering from conditions making them physically incapable of pregnancy , the future of the northern white rhino is bleak. As National Geographic put it last month, the subspecies would “ require nothing short of a miracle to be saved from extinction . ”
Still, conservationists are clinging to that possible miracle. After years of futile attempts to breed Sudan, Fatu and Najin naturally, the rhinos’ caretakers have been looking at a far more costly ― and controversial ― option: in vitro fertilization.
IVF in rhinos has never been successfully performed, but conservationists say it’ s the only hope of saving the northern white rhino from extinction. Since Najin and Fatu can’ t physically bear progeny, scientists are banking on using a female southern white rhino as a surrogate mother. Sex cells will be harvested from Najin and Fatu, before fertilizing them in vitro with stored sperm cells harvested from (now long-dead) northern white males . If all goes well, the embryo will be implanted into the surrogate.
Ol Pejeta said last year that they hope to carry out the procedure in 2018. “ The fate of the northern white rhino subspecies depends on this operation going smoothly, ” the conservancy said in a May press release.
If that doesn’ t work, the absolute last resort would be to impregnate a southern white rhino with sperm from a northern white. Southern white rhinos, which number about 17, 000 in the wild, are a distinct subspecies. Still, crossing the two subspecies would be better than complete extinction , conservationists have said.
All five remaining rhino species worldwide are considered threatened, according to the conservation group Save the Rhino . Three of the five species are critically endangered.