There Are Only Three Northern White Rhinoceros Left

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  09. 12. 2015


The northern white rhinoceros are dying out before our eyes. The female Nola was put to death in the San Diego Zoo on Sunday due to problems related to her high age and today there are only three individuals left in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where they were transported from the zoo in Dvůr Králové nad Labem. The last hope for this rhino subspecies could be that their embryos will be carried by a female of the related southern white rhinoceros. This is the plan of the San Diego Zoo – and if it can be done somewhere than here, thanks to both their experience and financial capacity.

Sudán is one of the last three northern white rhinoceros left in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Photo: Miroslav Bobek          Sudán is one of the last three northern white rhinoceros left in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Photo: Miroslav Bobek

Unfortunately, it is certain that the last naturally born cub was Fatu; born in Dvůr Králové in 2000, she is one of the three individuals living in Ol Pejeta. We were broadcasting her birth live on the internet within the Baby of the Millennium project. The name of the project carried the hope that the northern white rhinoceros can be saved. And it was legitimate. Today, it is as clear as day that at that very time the conservationists and zoos missed the last big chance. There was a group of northern white rhinoceros still surviving in the Garamba National Park in Congo and if it had been moved to safer areas and connect with the individuals from the zoos in San Diego and Dvůr Králové in time, everything could have been different.

The transport of rhinos from Dvůr Králové to Ol Pejeta at the end of 2009 was already late as all the members of this subspecies living in nature had already fallen prey to poachers and the low number of individuals kept by humans was already at the end of their reproductive age or not fertile any longer. It was an honourable attempt to reverse the situation. Dana Holečková, the then Director of the Dvůr Králové Zoo would deserve an award for it.
Yet there was a lot of absurd criticism and false allegations including the belief that this effort is driven by financial interests. All in all, the efforts to save the rhino were accompanied by even silly mistakes. When the egg cell of one of the last females of the northern white rhinoceros was inseminated by the sperm of a male of the southern subspecies by accident, it was a lapse comparable to throwing Mona Lisa in the trash while cleaning the Louvre.

I consider the story of the northern white rhinoceros a great failure. However, at the same time one has to realize that there are hundreds of similar stories going on unnoticed by the public. Pragmatically speaking, now it would be wiser to invest in saving those species with a higher chance of survival that are more extraordinary evolution-wise. If we are able to learn from the mistakes we have made and if the northern white rhinoceros becomes a symbol of protecting other species, than this failure can lead to a great victory.

There are only three northern white rhinoceros left in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. There is a northern white rhinoceros Sudán in the picture. Photo: Miroslav BobekThere are only three northern white rhinoceros left in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. There is a northern white rhinoceros Sudán in the picture. Photo: Miroslav Bobek

Miroslav Bobek, Director, Prague Zoo