One of the Most Important Animals on the African Savanna Is Nearing Extinction


Six. The death of 34-year-old northern white rhinoceros Suni earlier this week in Kenya has brought the population down to six remaining on Earth, bringing the endangered subspecies a step closer to extinction.

With the death of Suni, there's only one other male northern white rhino left on the planet, adding to the grim outlook for the endangered subspecies. Suni was among the world's eight northern white rhinos sent to Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2009 as part of a "last-ditch effort to save the critically endangered subspecies," National Geographic reported.

Suni died as he lived: in captivity. Suni was born in the Dv?r Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic and lived most of his life in Kenya's conservancy, where he was found dead in his enclosure Friday. Officials ruled out the involvement of poachers and an autopsy is underway.

White rhinos are thought to live up to 40 to 50 years. Suni, like his captive father, seemed to die of natural causes at an early age. He did not produce any offspring.

"The species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race," the reserve said in a statement.

What's killing the white rhinos? An increasing demand for the rhino's horns, a highly coveted item in Asia, has fueled a lucrative poaching industry in recent decades. In 2013, an estimated 1,004 white rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa. Each horn can cost up to $30,000 in the black market.

The death of Suni should serve as a wake-up call for conservationists. The subspecies is not alone in the threats it faces. A recent analysis by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London recently revealed that more than half of the world's wildlife population has disappeared in the last 40 years, primarily due to human factors. And according to scientists, the rate of species becoming extinct is happening 1,000 times faster because of humans. 

Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, considers the rare rhinos extinct. "[That] we've lost [the subspecies] is a statement of just how bad off large animals are across Africa," Pimm told National Geographic. "It's a measure of the fact that rhinos are being massively poached and in trouble wherever they are."

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The white rhinos are a "victim of evolution," Matthew Lewis, senior program officer for African species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund for Nature told National Geographic. The Great Right Valley and forests of Central Africa isolated the remnant population from the southern white rhinos. Political turmoil in Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda contributed to habitat loss and cleared the path for poaching.

There's still hope. The white rhinos, Pimm said, are "not just another charismatic animal." They are crucial to the health and vitality of certain ecosystems, keeping grasslands healthy as they feed.

"It also means we're losing this distinctive, important animal within the savanna ecosystem," Pimm added.

Though news of Suni's death reminds us of the gravity of human-induced extinction, scientists and conservationists are not giving up hope. An initiative to ensure the security of white rhinos and lessen the demand for their horns is in need of more support.

If the remaining male doesn't breed, scientists are exploring the possibility of bringing the northern white rhino females together with the southern white male rhinos to mate. Success would result in a mixed breed, one that would essentially preserve the genes of the northern white rhino.

"We will continue to do what we can to work with the remaining three animals on Ol Pejeta," the reserve said in a statement, "in the hope that our efforts will one day result in the successful birth of a northern white rhino calf."