Conservationists were expecting the death of Sudan, the world's last remaining male northern white rhinoceros. But when he died on Monday night, the news was met with international dismay.
The 45-year-old male rhino had been living under armed guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Earlier this month, Sudan developed an infection on his back right leg. He had already been suffering from age-related complications, and the infection worsened his condition.
Now, only two female northern white rhinos remain at the conservancy—the last of their kind on Earth.
Is All Hope Lost?
Sudan's death is largely seen as the final signature on the species' death warrant.
There was a major conservation push to help Sudan produce an offspring. In one last ditch effort to raise money for the rhino's care, conservationists created a Tinder profile for Sudan.
Documenting Sudan and the species decline was a major project for National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale.
"Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind," Vitale wrote in an Instagram post sharing the news.
Vitale was with Sudan when the rhino was transferred from a zoo in the Czech Republic to the Kenya reserve in 2009. It was thought that the African climate and having more room to roam would stimulate the rhinos to breed. (Meet the heroes who protect the last northern white rhinos.)
Because he is past reproductive age and the two females are unable to produce offspring naturally, scientists were attempting to breed a new rhino in a lab.
Sex cells were harvested from the living northern white rhinos, and scientists are hoping to use IVF to impregnate southern white rhino surrogates. The technology to pull this off is still being perfected.
"There's no guarantee that [IVF] will work," says Philip Muruthi, vice president of species protection at the African Wildlife Foundation. And he adds that it's extremely expensive and could cost more than $9 million.
"This is a bitter lesson of species conservation," says Muruthi. He notes that, while protection is costly, "the costs of recovery are even higher."
Rhinos in Africa
In 2014, there were only seven of the sub species on the planet—all in zoos. By the summer of 2015, the number had dwindled to four; a few months later there were only three.
But when the northern white rhino population began to decline, it was lightning fast.
In Sudan's last days, rangers at Ol Pejeta kept the three rhinos under 24/7 armed guard. Despite the species precipitous conservation status, the animals face an intense threat from poaching.
Like elephants, rhinos in Africa are aggressively hunted for their lucrative horns and skin.
In 2013, another rhino subspecies, the western black rhino, was declared extinct. The eastern black rhino, numbering around a thousand, could be the next rhino species facing extinction.
Conservationists are continuing to focus on saving this species in addition to the southern white rhino, a species numbering around 20,000.