The Lonely Existence of the Last Two Northern White Rhinos

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Since March 2018, Najin and Fatu have been the last two northern white rhinos on earth. Both are females (a mother-daughter duo), and thus unable to perpetuate the species — it’s “functionally extinct.”  In a story for the New York Times, Sam Anderson documents the lonely lives of the two beautiful creatures and details what we lose when a species vanishes before one’s eyes — it brings gravity to the extinction process that numbers and statistics just can’t.

Why This Matters: In 2019, the United Nations released a report detailing accelerating extinction rates. The verdict: 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction. Prof. Sandra Díaz of Argentina, who co-chaired the report, explained that mass extinction not only presents a danger to those species threatened but to the stability of humanity. “Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” she said.  This is why the High Ambition Coalition for Nature is so important – to ensure we save 30% of the planet by 2030 in order to stave off the next mast extinction.

Special Rhinos

Northern white rhinos can grow to be 6,000 pounds and have horns five feet long. Despite the name, white rhinos have no difference in color than their counterparts, the black rhino. The last male of the species, Sudan, lived to be an ancient (well, ancient for a rhinoceros) 45 years of age. When he died in 2018, leaving behind daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu, his caretakers rushed to preserve every inch of him, including his skin and sperm, so that his life could be remembered by future generations.

Those who knew him, however, will remember him for his sparkling personality, and eagerness to munch on carrots from tourists who came to visit him. That legacy has been carried on by his descendants, who now live in a supervised wilderness, accompanied by a southern white rhino named Tauwo, a “tutor” that caretakers brought in to make the ladies feel more at home in the wild. Najin and Fatu grew up in captivity in the Czech Republic, only transported to Africa in 2009, when they were 20 and 9 years old respectively.

James Mwenda, a caretaker the same age as Najin, has been a primary witness for the decline of the northern white rhino. He hopes to share the story of the animals he has come to love and prevent further extinction. “Extinction is a very distant thing for people,” he told Anderson. “So you have to turn extinction into a story — a story in which people can see themselves.”  Anderson shares one such story, describing the mother-daughter pair’s naptime ritual, and the two sharing a gassy symphony, “one biological chord, rising, fading, dispersing, expanding,” with those watching over them.

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