Marking a heartbreaking milestone in the story of the northern white rhino, Sudan — the very last male of the subspecies — died on Monday at the age of 45.
The “gentle giant,” who loved lounging in mud and getting scratched behind the ears, had been battling a severe leg infection for several weeks. His condition worsened significantly over the weekend and he was suffering a “great deal,” according to his caretakers at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. His veterinary team made the decision to euthanize him on Monday.
Sudan is named after his native South Sudan, where he was captured at a game reserve in 1975 at the age of 2. According to Ol Pejeta, Sudan was the last northern white rhino to have been born in the wild.
After his capture, Sudan was taken to the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, where he lived for several decades and fathered three offspring. His daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu are now the last two remaining northern white rhinos on Earth.
In 2009, Sudan was relocated to Ol Pejeta, where he lived with Najin and Fatu until his death. Though conservationists had hoped the rhinos would be able to breed naturally at the conservancy, efforts to encourage the animals to mate ultimately proved futile.
When Angalifu, a male northern white rhino living at the San Diego Zoo, died in 2014, Sudan became the last living male of the subspecies — and a beloved symbol for rhino conservation. He received 24/7 protection by armed guards and was visited by celebrities.
Sudan even got a Tinder profile of his own when Ol Pejeta partnered with the dating app last year in an effort to raise awareness about the subspecies’ struggle for survival.
“I perform well under pressure. I like to eat grass and chill in the mud,” read Sudan’s Tinder listing. “6 ft tall and 5,000lbs if it matters.”
Despite Sudan’s size, the animal was described as an affectionate “gentle giant” by his caretakers.
“Whenever he hears people talking, he loves to come close, because he knows he’s gonna be scratched,” Joseph Thaida, who has cared for the rhino since 2012, told NPR last year.
Despite Sudan’s passing, conservationists say they’re still hoping to save his subspecies from extinction by pursuing the costly and controversial option of in vitro fertilization.
Najin and Fatu both suffer from conditions making them physically unable to bear progeny, but scientists hope to harvest sex cells from the two female rhinos before fertilizing the eggs in vitro with stored sperm cells taken from Sudan and long-dead northern white males. If all goes well, the embryos would be implanted into southern white rhino surrogates.
As a last resort, conservationists said they could also attempt to impregnate a southern white rhino with sperm from a northern white. Southern white rhinos, which number about 17,000 in the wild, are a distinct subspecies. But conservationists have argued that crossing the two subspecies would be better than complete extinction.
Ol Pejeta said last year that it hopes to start the IVF process in 2018, though it promises to be a challenging feat. IVF in rhinos has never been successfully performed ― and even if it does succeed, the entire effort could cost up to $9 million.
Sudan’s veterinarian, Dr. Steve Ngulu, told NPR this week that the rhino’s passing is a “testament to human failure.”
The northern white rhinos had numbered over 2,000 as recently as 1960; poaching, fueled by demand for rhino horn, drove the subspecies to the brink of extinction ― reducing its population to just 15 animals by the mid-1980s.
On Tuesday, as news of Sudan’s death was made public, conservationists and others took to social media to express their grief ― and called for action to save the world’s remaining rhinos while there’s still time.
All five rhino species are considered threatened, according to the conservation group Save the Rhino. Three of the five species are critically endangered.