It’s odd to see hulking animals as large as the jeep you’re sitting in delicately sucking up proffered carrots through lips the size of gaps in sofa cushions. Like watching Arnold Schwarzenegger – in his bulked-up prime – figure skating.
Arnie’s Terminator character famously said ‘I’ll be back’. But that’s far from certain for these magnificent beasts: even then, 10 years ago, they were just four of the last six Northern white rhinoceroses left on the planet.
It was on a safari trip to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya, in 2013 when I watched them eating carrots handed to them by their keepers. The intervening decade has seen the deaths of two captive females at San Diego Zoo and of the last two males at Ol Pejeta. The remaining two females are the daughter and granddaughter of Sudan, the last male. Thus, the Northern white rhino is functionally extinct.
However, scientists are currently perfecting techniques to use cryopreserved semen, eggs and other tissues from surviving and deceased individuals to produce viable embryos by IVF, which can then be implanted in Southern white rhino surrogates (neither of the remaining females can gestate a calf) in the hope of resurrecting a population.
Contrasting fates of white rhinos
The white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) diverged into Northern and Southern subspecies (we’ll call them NWR and SWR respectively) just under a million years ago, but they retain a high degree of genetic similarity.
The NWR inhabited grasslands sandwiched between the Sahara, the Congo Basin and the Nile, mostly across modern-day Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until the 20th century, they are likely to have numbered in the tens of thousands. In contrast, their southern cousins were heavily hunted.
The last century, however, saw a dramatic reversal of fortunes, with strict protections and game ranching in southern Africa increasing the SWR population, while political instability, warfare and associated poaching decimated NWRs, particularly since the 1970s. There is therefore a clear argument that we have a collective moral obligation to save them.
Ecologically too, there’s a good rationale. Many conservationists rightly criticise the disproportionate resources and public attention monopolised by large charismatic species. But the white rhino – unlike say, the cute and cuddly panda – is a keystone mega-herbivore whose grazing has significant impacts on habitat structure and heterogeneity, and its extinction from its northern range has resulted in an impoverished ecosystem.
However, although the concept of ‘de-extinction’ is exciting, and could revolutionise the future of conservation, this project raises questions over how limited resources should be prioritised.
Rhinos as a whole are not under threat
The technology required to resurrect the NWR is intensive and expensive. And it is not as if the species as a whole is under threat. There are some distinctions between Northern and Southern rhinos. But does it warrant the use of advanced cellular biology to recreate NWR embryos in vitro when, ecologically speaking, the SWR would be a perfectly good substitute for introduction into former NWR habitat?
And also, assuming that the labs involved can successfully produce NWR calves within the next decade, it is unclear whether the threats that wiped them out in the first place will be sufficiently reduced to allow for successful reintroductions. Or even whether such founder populations would have sufficient genetic diversity for long-term viability.
So I’m in two minds about saving the Northern white rhino – a process known as de-extinction. I was enormously privileged to be among the relatively few people on our planet to have seen living NWRs in their fuzzy-eared glory. And it is true that if the last two females, Najin and her daughter Fatu, died without progeny the world would seem a smaller, emptier place.
Legalising the sale of rhino horns
But this is ultimately just one subspecies of a relatively numerous rhino, and wildlife the world over (including other rhino species) is going to hell in a handbasket. Cooking up lab-grown rhinos with little prospect of their safe reintroduction to the wild would seem a waste of money and resources.
A measure that could potentially address some of these criticisms would be to legalise the international trade in rhino horn. The ban maintained by CITES is counter-productive, having merely ceded the market to organised crime and helped inflate the value of the horn to the point where it fetches higher prices than diamonds or cocaine, despite bearing no material difference to your toenail clippings (both being made of keratin).
This is certainly controversial and should be approached tentatively. However, managing small populations of rhinos for regular dehorning, and a Central Selling Organisation to regulate the trade, could sustainably meet much of the estimated black market demand. At the same time it would undermine the illegal trade driving poaching. Profits could be invested in local communities, and perhaps in biotechnology, to resurrect NWR into a safer world.
Whatever the future of the NWR, these technologies could, provided they aren’t used as an excuse for complacency in conservation, be valuable tools to have in our back pocket. But at this rate we may end up having to ‘de-extinct’ a lot more than one subspecies.
So many other creatures on our planet are under imminent threat.