Striving to save a species

He was the LAST OF HIS KIND ... or maybe not the last, after all. From Africa, Jonathan Vigliotti has a cautionary tale:

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on Earth, looks as if he traveled here from prehistoric times. And, in fact, these mighty creatures have been around for millennia.

With their super-sized horns and thick skin as protective armor, they seem indestructible. But when Vigliotti met Sudan -- the "last male standing" -- earlier this month, the rhino was living out his final days at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in Kenya.

Here, where lions, giraffes and elephants roam free, 45-year-old Sudan remained under the watchful eye of keeper Zachariah Mufai. "I've worked with him for eight years now. So I know him very well," said Mufai. "He's a great friend of mine, he's just more like my family. So, that's why I take great care of him."

Sudan's treatment by his keepers, and veterinarian Stephen Ngulu, is a lot like hospice care for an aging family patriarch.

"He's a charming rhino who is very gentle," said Ngulu. "He's a gentle giant. He's a very gentle giant. If he were to speak, he would say a lot."

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Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

CBS News

Sudan spent most of his life at a zoo in the Czech Republic.  His captivity turned out to be a blessing; he was protected, while northern white rhinos in the wild were poached to extinction.

"He's become this kind of charismatic animal that is known across the planet," said conservationist Richard Vigne, who created a wildlife sanctuary here. Sudan would eventually call it home, along with the two remaining northern white females, Najin and Fatu.

"There's no doubt that if northern white rhinos hadn't existed in zoos, then the species would now be completely extinct," said Vigne.

The word rhinoceros comes from the Greek; it means "nose-horn." But their distinctive nose not only gave rhinos their name, it also makes them a coveted target.

Vigne said, "The reason that rhinos are threatened by poaching is because of demand for their horn. Pure and simple.  Horn in the Far-East is considered to have medicinal properties. In some places it's become like a status symbol, which is put into drinks in powdered form to cure hangovers if you are a rich person.

"Put yourself in the position of the rhino poacher: If he is successful he'll be able to sell it for $60,000. That for him is 20 years' worth of wages. So that's the incentive -- it's huge." 

In 2009, with the northern white population in the single digits, Sudan and his female companions were flown to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, then carted to Ol Pejeta, where the hope was that nature would take its course. 

And they did mate. But nature didn't take its course. "We were expecting to have babies in the natural way, but it just never worked," said Mufai. Now, science must succeed where nature hasn't. 

Invaluable sperm samples -- about 300 milliliters of northern white rhino semen collected from the last of the species -- are stored in liquid nitrogen at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. 

"The calculated storage time from these samples is about 3,000 years," said Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt.

Using surrogates, Dr. Hildebrandt has been perfecting a procedure to harvest rhino eggs from Najin and Fatu; fertilize them with the semen; and then transfer the embryo to a healthy surrogate.

"We are now at the point that we can perform the procedure very safely," Dr. Hildebrandt said. "We did it more than 16 times in southern white rhino females, and we are extremely confident that we will be successful."

Vigliotti said, "This almost sounds like 'Jurassic Park.'"  

"It's very similar," Dr. Hildebrandt said. "You could end up with a situation where the northern white rhinos all die, and then because we've got the embryos, we can reintroduce them as a species back onto the planet."

On the brink of extinction because of human greed, Sudan has had to rely on his human keepers for protection from poachers. That includes an armed security detail. 

Richard Vigne described the need for his park's "mini-military": "The people coming here are wily, they're bush-savvy. They understand how to operate at night amongst wild animals, and they are skilflul with firearms.  They are people who will think nothing of shooting back."

Simon Irungu is part of the anti-poaching team that walks the park every night. 

How dangerous is this work?  "Well, it's not a walk in the park!" he replied. "We are the voice of those animals. We are their arms. So, whenever one is poached it's like one of the family has gone down."

"It's like losing a family member?" asked Vigliotti.

"Yes."

And for the past few days, Sudan's family has been in mourning. Just after Vigliotti's visit, Sudan's ailing body finally gave way. Caretakers made the gut-wrenching decision to euthanize him. Keeper Zachariah Mufai was by his side. 

But even with Sudan now gone, Vigne hopes that -- in death -- the "last male standing" will at last bring change.

"People around the world now know about Sudan, and that for me is his greatest role," he said. "We may still lose the northern white rhino as a species, but he will have created a message which hopefully can be perpetuated to a wide audience.

"It's about drawing a line in the sand and saying, sooner or later, as humans we're going to have to change the way we exist on this planet. And if we don't, that's going to be to our considerable detriment."

       
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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano.